Ang Cui is a well known hacker turned Ph.D. student at Columbia University in New York City and he is the guy behind the now infamous Cisco Phone hack.
Neural implants and similar embedded medical devices are embedded computer systems that can be compromised. A similar attack on a future neural interface might allow someone to read your private thoughts, control your perceptions, erase memories and more. They might even be able to kill you with it.
Ang’s security research focuses on embedded devices such as routers, printers and VOIP phones. And he is the inventor of a novel, host-based defense mechanism known as Symbiotes. Symbiotes are software defenses “designed specifically to retrofit black-box, vulnerable, legacy embedded systems withsophisticated anti-exploitation mechanisms”.
Cyberpunk fiction is populated with visions of back alley biohackers, working in secret to install potentially illegal or modified neural implants. Any of these devices might be compromised and used to attack the user. Science fiction right?
Not if you were one of the folks who had Advanced Bionics cochlear implants installed in your head.
“This failure causes an overvoltage — an overcurrent — to be applied to one or more electrode contacts, powerful enough to cause a loud, painful jolt. In addition, there is the distinct possibility this would induce current biasing if (and we stress the word IF) the failure includes a shorted output tantalum electrolytic capacitor, which would cause a(n electro)plating effect, ripping metallic crystals off of the electrode button contacts, destroying it (them) over time… And causing consequent damage in the tight spaces of the cochlea, as such electro-chemical reactions can produce bio-toxic byproducts as well as introduce potentially damaging changes in the local pH.”
—————**** Recall Notification****—————
Advanced Bionics HiRes 90K Cochlear Implant
Dear Cochlear Implant Recipient or Parent,
Our mission at Advanced Bionics is to improve the lives of the hearing impaired, and the safety and well-being of our recipients is our first priority. Because we are committed to ensuring that our products are as safe as possible, we are voluntarily informing you that we have become aware of an issue with the HiRes 90K cochlear implant. The issue can result in pain, overly loud sounds, and/or sudden shock sensation in the implanted ear while the implant is receiving power.
Thus far, our investigation shows that of the more than 28,000 implanted HiRes 90K devices, only two explanted devices have been confirmed to have this issue. There are 9 other patients with similar symptoms which our investigations have not yet ruled out as related to this issue. For the two confirmed cases, there were no symptoms upon initial activation of device. However, the patients experienced symptoms after 8-10 days of use. Both recipients were re-implanted with HiRes 90K devices and their clinicians report that they are progressing well.
We are conducting an extensive investigation of this issue using an independent scientific research organization. Their current analysis suggests that, if present, the issue will first occur within 90 days of device use. However, the onset of symptoms may be delayed after initial activation, and they may continue to occur intermittently. In the unlikely event that this symptom occurs, continued device use may lead to damage to the inner ear and/or the auditory nerve. If you or your child experience pain related to implant use, remove the external equipment immediately and contact your cochlear implant clinician to schedule an appointment. If the evaluation of your device identifies this problem, device replacement is advised.
It is important to note that it is not unusual for cochlear implant recipients to experience overly loud sounds. Most of these cases can be resolved with standard troubleshooting, such as the replacement of external equipment. The vast majority of these cases are not signs of the issue described above and do not require explant of the device. We will notify you again as more information from our investigation becomes available.
We sincerely regret any concern this notification may cause. Advanced Bionics assures you that we will correct this issue and continue to improve our product reliability. If you have any questions regarding this letter, please contact an Advanced Bionics representative at 877-577-4628 (telephone) Monday – Friday 5:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. PST or http://www.advancedbionics.com (live chat) Monday – Friday 5:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. PST.
In order to assure the effectiveness of this communication, please complete the enclosed acknowledgment form and return it to us at your earliest convenience by using one of the following options:
Mail: Self-Addressed stamped envelope
This was a letter sent in relation to a component-level failure in a cochlear implant circuit, one which overrides the many fail-safe mechanisms built in since this circuit was introduced in 2003.
Here is the real world troubleshooting advice provided for this problem.
If “identified recipient is reporting/showing signs of extreme pain with their typical program”, do the following:
a. Exchange all external equipment.
b. Create a program with all M’s set to 0.
c. Try the ‘zero’ M program.
d. If the recipient hears nothing/does not demonstrate an adverse reaction, they do not have the issue. Discontinue use of the ‘zero’ M program.
e. If they experience extreme pain or demonstrate an extreme adverse reaction with this program, discontinue use of the sound processor. It is likely that they have an implant with this issue.
f. Contact your AB Clinical Specialist or Technical Service Europe.
Now imagine a sophisticated hacker accessing your “street modified” neural implant and doing something like zeroing it out or running code that produced an “over-current”. It might disable or actually kill you. Ang’s work with symbiotes or something very similar might very well be the first line of defense; a software immune system for your mind.
Check out Ang’s recent ACM Queue appearance too. Great!