What Dick Cheney’s Pacemaker Tells Us about Wireless Vulnerabilities

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What Dick Cheney’s Pacemaker Tells Us about Wireless VulnerabilitiesIt seems straight out of the movies: terrorists assassinate a high-level official by hacking into his pacemaker. Indeed, this was the fate of the vice-president in the Showtime series, Homeland.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. But a real life vice president actually feared this possibility. Dick Cheney received a pacemaker in 2007, and he was concerned enough to ensure that doctors removed its wireless capabilities in case any terrorist could gain access to it. These details are revealed in a new book called Heart, written both by Cheney and his cardiologist.

Pacemakers have wireless capabilities so that doctors can make small adjustments when necessary without the need for surgery.

While there have been no official deaths by this type of pacemaker hacking, the possibility does seem to exist. A hacker named Barnaby Jack revealed that he knew how to do it. After researching it for six months, he reportedly was able to hack a pacemaker remotely and deliver a high-voltage shock from 50 feet away. He died a mysterious death in August at the age of 35, mere weeks before he was going to publicly release his findings.

Worrisome News

While the threat of death via pacemaker hack is remote, it is theoretically possible. The odds of hackers learning how to do this will only increase. This episode reveals the hard truth about wireless devices or anything connected to a network: it’s always possible to hack into it.

At the last Defcon conference (an annual conference where all the new hacking exploits and computer vulnerabilities are discussed), many presenters showed just how easy it is to hack all the new things that are now wireless. You may know that your computer can be hacked, but now your phone, smartcar, and even your toilet can be hacked.

Defcon detailed how more and more of the technology we use in daily life is being computerized, and any computer system is vulnerable to attack. In addition to pacemakers, the list of things that either have been hacked or may be hacked in the near future includes driverless cars, ATMs, toilets, refrigerators, heating systems, toasters, digital cameras, children’s toys, and TVs.

The good news, for now at least, is that these hacking attempts have only been attempted by a few people, and most of these people are doing it for a good reason: to help manufacturer’s identity security flaws that ultimately improve their products.

But the point we should take away is that these threats are real, and we should take them seriously. We must assume that any new wireless device is vulnerable to hackers, and take steps to ensure that all of our technology is safe.

 

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.