It’s Way Too Easy to Hack the Hospital

It’s Way Too Easy to Hack the Hospital

Firewalls and medical devices are extremely vulnerable, and everyone’s pointing fingers

In the fall of 2013, Billy Rios flew from his home in California to Rochester, Minn., for an assignment at the Mayo Clinic, the largest integrated nonprofit medical group practice in the world. Rios is a “white hat” hacker, which means customers hire him to break into their own computers. His roster of clients has included the Pentagon, major defense contractors, Microsoft, Google, and some others he can’t talk about.

He’s tinkered with weapons systems, with aircraft components, and even with the electrical grid, hacking into the largest public utility district in Washington state to show officials how they might improve public safety. The Mayo Clinic job, in comparison, seemed pretty tame. He assumed he was going on a routine bug hunt, a week of solo work in clean and quiet rooms.

But when he showed up, he was surprised to find himself in a conference room full of familiar faces. The Mayo Clinic had assembled an all-star team of about a dozen computer jocks, investigators from some of the biggest cybersecurity firms in the country, as well as the kind of hackers who draw crowds at conferences such as Black Hat and Def Con. The researchers split into teams, and hospital officials presented them with about 40 different medical devices. Do your worst, the researchers were instructed. Hack whatever you can.

Like the printers, copiers, and office telephones used across all industries, many medical devices today are networked, running standard operating systems and living on the Internet just as laptops and smartphones do. Like the rest of the Internet of Things—devices that range from cars to garden sprinklers—they communicate with servers, and many can be controlled remotely. As quickly became apparent to Rios and the others, hospital administrators have a lot of reasons to fear hackers. For a full week, the group spent their days looking for backdoors into magnetic resonance imaging scanners, ultrasound equipment, ventilators, electroconvulsive therapy machines, and dozens of other contraptions. The teams gathered each evening inside the hospital to trade casualty reports.

“Every day, it was like every device on the menu got crushed,” Rios says. “It was all bad. Really, really bad.” The teams didn’t have time to dive deeply into the vulnerabilities they found, partly because they found so many—defenseless operating systems, generic passwords that couldn’t be changed, and so on.

The Mayo Clinic emerged from those sessions with a fresh set of security requirements for its medical device suppliers, requiring that each device be tested to meet standards before purchasing contracts were signed. Rios applauded the clinic, but he knew that only a few hospitals in the world had the resources and influence to pull that off, and he walked away from the job with an unshakable conviction: Sooner or later, hospitals would be hacked, and patients would be hurt. He’d gotten privileged glimpses into all sorts of sensitive industries, but hospitals seemed at least a decade behind the standard security curve.

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