Wearable Health Trackers Could Pose Security Risks

Posted on February 1, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Last October, security researchers made waves when they unveiled what they described as a 10-second hack of a Fitbeat wearable health tracker. At the Hack.Lu 2015 conference, Fortinet security researcher Axelle Apvrille laid out a method for hacking the wearable through its Bluetooth radio. Apparently, Aprville was able to infect the Fitbit Flex from as much as 15 feet away, manipulate data on the tracker, and use the Flex to distribute his code to a computer.

Fitbit, for its part, denied that its devices can serve as vehicles for infecting users with malware. And Aprville himself admitted publicly that his demonstration was more theoretical than practical. In a tweet following the conference, he noted that he had not demonstrated a way to execute malicious code on the victim’s host.

But the incident does bring attention to a very serious issue. While consumers are picking up health trackers at a breathless pace, relatively little attention has been paid to whether the data on these devices is secure. Perhaps even more importantly, too few experts are seeking ways to prevent these devices can be turned into a jumping-off point for malware. After all, like any other lightly-guarded Internet of Things device, a wearable tracker could ultimately allow an attacker to access enterprise healthcare networks, and possibly even sensitive PHI or financial data.

It’s not as though we aren’t aware that connected healthcare devices are rich hunting grounds. For example, security groups are beginning to focus on securing networked medical devices such as blood gas analyzers and wireless infusion pumps, as it’s becoming clear that they might be accessible to data thieves or other malicious intruders. But perhaps because wearable trackers are effectively “healthcare lite,” used almost exclusively by consumers, the threat they could pose to healthcare organizations over time hasn’t generated a lot of heat.

But health tracker security strategies deserve a closer look. Here’s some sample suggestions on how to secure health and fitness devices from Milan Patel, IoT Security Program Director at IBM:

  • Device design: Health tracker manufacturers should establish a secure hardware and software development process, including source code analysis to pinpoint code vulnerabilities and security testing to find runtime vulnerabilities. Use trusted manufacturers who secure components, and a trusted supply chain. Also, deliver secure firmware/software updates and audit them.
  • Device deployment:  Be sure to use strong encryption to protect privacy and integrity of data on the device, during transmission from device to the cloud and on the cloud. To further control device data, give consumers the ability to set up user and usage privileges for their data, and an option to anonymize the data.Secure all communication channels to protect against data change, corruption or observation.
  • Manage security:  Include trackers in the set of technology being monitored, and set alerts for intrusion. Audit logging is desirable for the devices, as well as the network connections and the cloud. The tracker should ideally be engineered to include a fail-safe operation — dropping the system down to incapability, safely — to protect against attacks.

This may sound like a great deal of effort to expend on these relatively unsophisticated devices. And at present, it just may be overkill. But it’s worth preparing for a world in which health trackers are increasingly capable and connected, and increasingly attractive to the attackers who want your data.