Dick Cheney’s Unhackable Heart

Let’s take the cheap “Dick Cheney has a heart?” jokes as read and move on to the story at hand, viz: Dick Cheney had the software for his implanted defibrillator altered to prevent remote hacking.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Cheney admits to asking for wireless features to be disabled:

Cheney says that he and his doctor, cardiologist Jonathan Reiner, turned off the device’s wireless function in case a terrorist tried to send his heart a fatal shock.

Years later, Cheney watched an episode of the Showtime series “Homeland” in which such a scenario was part of the plot.

“I found it credible,” Cheney tells “60 Minutes” in a segment to be aired Sunday. “I know from the experience we had, and the necessity for adjusting my own device, that it was an accurate portrayal of what was possible.”

The security of radio communications in medical devices is not just the stuff of TV episodes or paranoia: it’s been a real concern for several years.

Wireless features allow implanted devices to communicate with medical professions in order to stream data, alert them to serious issues, and make changes without surgery. Any wireless signal, however, is potentially hackable. This a particularly grave concern with aerial drones, but political and military leaders with implanted devices may also be vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Last summer, ICS-CERT (the Industrial Control Systems–Cyber Emergency Readiness Team, part of the Department of Homeland Security ) sounded an alarm about the issue, specifying the following devices as vulnerable to hacking:

  • Surgical and anesthesia devices
  • Ventilators
  • Drug infusion pumps
  • External defibrillators
  • Patient monitors
  • Laboratory and analysis equipment

Back in 2008, programmers from Harvard’s Medical Device Security Center hacked an implanted defibrillator using a PC and some radio hardware. The device, obviously, was not in a patient at the time.