Medical Devices Are Vulnerable to Hacks, But Risk Is Low Overall

Devices will become harder to secure as they gain complexity and connectivity

3 min read
Medical Devices Are Vulnerable to Hacks, But Risk Is Low Overall

12 August 2011—Earlier this month, Jerome Radcliffe stood onstage at the Black Hat Technical Security Conference in Las Vegas, hacked into the insulin pump that was affixed to his abdomen by a thin tube, and completely disabled it. Radcliffe is diabetic, and the pump is one component in an insulin-delivery system that monitors and stabilizes his glucose levels to keep him alive.

Although hacking an insulin pump requires the advanced technical know-how of a security expert and a proximity of no more than 30 meters, Radcliffe's demonstration has reopened a debate over whether medical-device manufacturers are taking the necessary steps to fend off attacks by hackers. "Security is an all-the-time thing, not a sometimes thing," he says. "If there's a vulnerability, it needs to be addressed."

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Restoring Hearing With Beams of Light

Gene therapy and optoelectronics could radically upgrade hearing for millions of people

13 min read
A computer graphic shows a gray structure that’s curled like a snail’s shell. A big purple line runs through it. Many clusters of smaller red lines are scattered throughout the curled structure.

Human hearing depends on the cochlea, a snail-shaped structure in the inner ear. A new kind of cochlear implant for people with disabling hearing loss would use beams of light to stimulate the cochlear nerve.

Lakshay Khurana and Daniel Keppeler

There’s a popular misconception that cochlear implants restore natural hearing. In fact, these marvels of engineering give people a new kind of “electric hearing” that they must learn how to use.

Natural hearing results from vibrations hitting tiny structures called hair cells within the cochlea in the inner ear. A cochlear implant bypasses the damaged or dysfunctional parts of the ear and uses electrodes to directly stimulate the cochlear nerve, which sends signals to the brain. When my hearing-impaired patients have their cochlear implants turned on for the first time, they often report that voices sound flat and robotic and that background noises blur together and drown out voices. Although users can have many sessions with technicians to “tune” and adjust their implants’ settings to make sounds more pleasant and helpful, there’s a limit to what can be achieved with today’s technology.

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