Abbott patches pacemaker software to guard against hacks

by Susie Olson August 31, 2017, 1:36
Abbott patches pacemaker software to guard against hacks

It's probably the most crucial patch of the year: Abbott Laboratories' reworked firmware for its St Jude pacemakers has won Food and Drug Administration approval to ship.

Still, even though there's not a ton of risk of having your pacemaker hacked in public, the FDA recommends that patients with the device make an appointment with their doctors to get the firmware update.

The recall says patients could be at risk of someone taking advantage of cybersecurity holes in vulnerable pacemakers. A hacker could change a pacemaker's programming, which could drain the battery or deliver.

While St. Jude built patches for these flaws, this newest FDA alert provides the framework to fix the vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, installing the firmware update can result in a failure to update altogether, the loss of programmed settings, the loss of diagnostic data, as well as a very small risk - 0.003 percent - of complete functionality loss.

The company also says the risks of performing the update are low based on its previous experience with firmware updates.

"These planned updates further strengthen the security and device management tools for our connected cardiac rhythm management devices", Abbott spokeswoman Candace Steele Flippin said via e-mail.

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And although there have been no reports of actual harm to patients due to hackers exploiting the vulnerabilities in the devices, "that number can go from zero to a lot of patients quickly" if hackers decide to launch attacks, Corman warns.

But as a precaution, Abbott says that pacing dependent patients should be given the update in a facility where temporary pacing and a pacemaker generator are on hand.

The update is for pacemakers with radio frequency (RF) telemetry capabilities, meaning that they are wirelessly connected by radio waves for recording and transmitting the readings of the devices.

This marks the second time Abbott has issued a cybersecurity-related update for its St. Jude cardiac devices.

The update comes a year after the financial firm Muddy Waters shorted St. Jude's stock and announced what it said were grave cybersecurity vulnerabilities that render St. Jude heart-rhythm devices vulnerable to computer hacking.

The network-enabled cardiac pacemakers, originally manufactured by St. Jude Medical, came under fire in August 2016 after the investment firm Muddy Waters Capital reported the devices had "little to no built-in security". The device will run on backup mode during the process, but all life-sustaining features will still be available.

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