NIST Goes After Infusion Pump Security Vulnerabilities

Posted on January 28, 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.

As useful as networked medical devices are, it’s become increasingly apparent that they pose major security risks.  Not only could intruders manipulate networked devices in ways that could harm patients, they could use them as a gateway to sensitive patient health information and financial data.

To make a start at taming this issue, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has kicked off a project focused on boosting the security of wireless infusion pumps (Side Note: I wonder if this is in response to Blackberry’s live hack of an infusion pump). In an effort to be sure researchers understand the hospital environment and how the pumps are deployed, NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) plans to work with vendors in this space. The NCCoE will also collaborate on the effort with the Technological Leadership Institute at the University of Minnesota.

NCCoE researchers will examine the full lifecycle of wireless infusion pumps in hospitals, including purchase, onboarding of the asset, training for use, configuration, use, maintenance, decontamination and decommissioning of the pumps. This makes a great deal of sense. After all, points of network connection are becoming so decentralized that every touchpoint is suspect.

The team will also look at what types of infrastructure interconnect with the pumps, including the pump server, alarm manager, electronic medication administration record system, point of care medication, pharmacy system, CPOE system, drug library, wireless networks and even the hospital’s biomedical engineering department. (It’s sobering to consider the length of this list, but necessary. After all, more or less any of them could conceivably be vulnerable if a pump is compromised.)

Wisely, the researchers also plan to look at the way a wide range of people engage with the pumps, including patients, healthcare professionals, pharmacists, pump vendor engineers, biomedical engineers, IT network risk managers, IT security engineers, IT network engineers, central supply workers and patient visitors — as well as hackers. This data should provide useful workflow information that can be used even beyond cybersecurity fixes.

While the NCCoE and University of Minnesota teams may expand the list of security challenges as they go forward, they’re starting with looking at access codes, wireless access point/wireless network configuration, alarms, asset management and monitoring, authentication and credentialing, maintenance and updates, pump variability, use and emergency use.

Over time, NIST and the U of M will work with vendors to create a lab environment where collaborators can identify, evaluate and test security tools and controls for the pumps. Ultimately, the project’s goal is to create a multi-part practice guide which will help providers evaluate how secure their own wireless infusion pumps are. The guide should be available late this year.

In the mean time, if you want to take a broader look at how secure your facility’s networked medical devices are, you might want to take a look at the FDA’s guidance on the subject, “Cybersecurity for Networked Medical Devices Containing Off-the-Shelf Software.” The guidance doc, which was issued last summer, is aimed at device vendors, but the agency also offers a companion document offering information on the topic for healthcare organizations.

If this topic interests you, you may also want to watch this video interview talking about medical device security with Tony Giandomenico, a security expert at Fortinet.