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My DHS Beats Your FDA

As someone who has been part of the medical field my entire life (family business before I became a paramedic) the intersection between medicine and technology is of high personal interest. I still remember the time I got in trouble at work for hacking my boss’s password so we could get into the reporting application he accidentally locked everyone out of.

Medical IT is, for the most part, the biggest fracking disaster you can imagine. The software is insanely complex and generally terribly written. The user interfaces are convoluted and exactly wrong for the kind of non-technical users they are built for. More often than not there is a massive disconnect between engineers, IT admins, and clinical users.

And security? Frequently it’s the thought you have after an afterthought, when you get around to it, on the fifth Wednesday of the second month of the… you get the idea. Hospital IT tends to rely extremely heavily on vendors who use remote access. Inside, the networks are as soft as you can imagine. I’m not saying this to be insulting, and there are most definitely exceptions at some of the more profitable institutions, but most hospitals barely slide by financially, are SMBs, and lack the resources to really invest in a good, structured IT program.

Adding fuel to the fire is a vendor community and regulatory body (the FDA) that make the SCADA folks look positively prescient. So it is no surprise that DHS finds themselves stepping in over the FDA to pressure vendors to patch vulnerable systems.

After initial bids to contact Philips failed, researchers Rios and colleague Terry McCorkle sought assistance from the DHS, the FDA and the country’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS CERT).

Two days later, DHS control system director Marty Edwards told the researchers the agency would from then on handle all information security vulnerabilities found in medical devices and software.

The announcement comes month after the US Government Accountability Office said in a report (pdf) that action was required to address medical device flaws, adding that the FDA did not consider such security risks “a realistic possibility until recently”.

We’ll see where this goes as the agencies battle it out. But I think this is the start of a long road – I don’t see the funds needed to really address this problem getting freed up any time soon.

—Rich

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