The horror story practically writes itself: hacked pacemakers and insulin pumps. Gaining control of medical devices through wireless connections would allow hackers to visualize vital signs or potentially even cause harm. But a team of engineers at Purdue have been working on a solution to this problem that involves the body itself.
“We’re connecting more and more devices to the human body network, from smart watches and fitness trackers to head-mounted virtual reality displays,” says Shreyas Sen, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in sensing and communication systems, in a press statement.
“The challenge has not only been keeping this communication within the body so that no one can intercept it, but also getting higher bandwidth and less battery consumption,” he says.
Currently, many medical devices and pieces of wearable tech meld Bluetooth technology with a body area network, also known as a BAN. That means that the devices send out electromagnetic waves that can be picked up in a radius of around 32 feet (10 meters) of the wearer before returning to the device. That radius leaves ample room for hackers.
Using what’s known as a magnetoquasistatic field, they were able to create signals that did not venture further a centimeter off the skin and, as a plus, used 100 times less energy than traditional Bluetooth communication. Using a prototype smart watch, Sen’s team was able to transmit commands through a tightly limited BAN.
Beyond hacking protection, Sen says, the technology could allow for doctors to reprogram medical devices without the need for any invasive surgery. It could event usher in an era of what Sen calls “closed-loop bioelectronic medicine – in which wearable or implantable medical devices function as drugs, but without the side effects – and high-speed brain imaging for neuroscience applications.”
But for right now, privacy is paramount.
“We show for the first time a physical understanding of the security properties of human body communication to enable a covert body area network, so that no one can snoop important information,” Sen says.
The technology behind the device has gotten multiple patents through the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization. Sen hopes to commercialise the technique.