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Cyber-attacks on medical implants: A case study of Cardiac Pacemaker vulnerability

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This paper describes the vulnerability of the medical implants due to cyber-attacks, which can result in unexpected behavior of these devices thus causing severe damage to human safety. Although, it seems hard to believe that someone’s implantable medical device (IMD), e.g. pacemaker or insulin pump can be hacked by an eavesdropper, in reality, researchers have demonstrated that these embedded medical devices can turn into assassination weapons by modifying the operation through remote access. It is therefore important to address these issues to ensure safety and security in medical cyber physical systems. Model based control is implemented in Matlab/Simulink to demonstrate the control of pacemaker device. Moreover, certain attack models are used to visualize the effects of cyber-attacks on cardiac pacemaker.
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International Journal of Computing and Digital Systems
ISSN (2210-142X)
Int. J. Com. Dig. Sys. #, No.# (Mon-20..)
E-mail:engrzee@gmail.com
http://journals.uob.edu.bh
Cyber-attacks on medical implants: A case study of Cardiac
Pacemaker vulnerability
Muhammad Muneeb Ur Rehman, Hafiz Zia Ur Rehman and Zeashan Hameed Khan
Department of Mechatronics and Biomedical Engineering, Air University, Islamabad, Pakistan
E-mail address: mnburrahman2@gmail.com, hzia05@gmail.com, engrzee@gmail.com
Received ## Mon. 20##, Revised ## Mon. 20##, Accepted ## Mon. 20##, Published ## Mon. 20##
Abstract: This paper describes the vulnerability of the medical implants due to cyber-attacks, which can result in unexpected behavior
of these devices thus causing severe damage to human safety. Although, it seems hard to believe that someone’s implantable medical
device (IMD), e.g. pacemaker or insulin pump can be hacked by an eavesdropper, in reality, researchers have demonstrated that these
embedded medical devices can turn into assassination weapons by modifying the operation through remote access. It is therefore
important to address these issues to ensure safety and security in medical cyber physical systems. Model based control is implemented
in Matlab/Simulink to demonstrate the control of pacemaker device. Moreover, certain attack models are used to visualize the effects
of cyber-attacks on cardiac pacemaker.
Keywords: Implantable medical device, Cyber-attack, Cardiac pacemaker, Cyber physical system
1. INTRODUCTION
Due to rapid growth of micro and nanotechnology,
miniature devices are getting popular to control human
biological systems e.g. artificial pancreas, pacemaker etc.
A medical cyber physical system (CPS) is a network of
regulator, communication, sensing and actuation of the
embedded components to monitor and control the physical
process of patients [1]. However, as for a typical CPS,
safety and security are equally important aspects and these
complex systems are responsible to control biological
process of a human organ. As future healthcare systems are
heading towards “e-health”, more focus is required to
establish trust as these embedded systems are vulnerable to
cybersecurity threats that can jeopardize patient health and
safety [2].
Implantable cardioverter defibrillators (ICDs) and
pacemakers are examples of IMDs used to control the heart
rhythms by sending electrical impulses to heart for
synchronization [3]. External devices connected remotely
to access the data from ICDs where patient need not to
come to the hospital and physicians are kept informed
about the functioning of pacemaker implants. An artificial
pancreas also functions the same way by continuously
monitoring the blood sugar level and controlling an insulin
pump to inject appropriate amount of insulin to the blood
stream [4, 5]. Due to wireless link connectivity, an intended
attacker can hack into the signal to alter the device
functioning. One such concern was documented by
Department of Homeland Security industrial control
system advisories who highlighted the security breach,
which can be easily accessed in case of Medtronic insulin
pump over-dosage resulting in sudden hypoglycemic
condition mortal for the patient [6].
Although, in the medical history, until present, no
patient died due to cyber-attack on IMDs, experts
demonstrated several times that such devices can be
accessed and reprogrammed remotely by a malicious
intruder, which can be fatal for the safety of the patient
using it. In 2008, a team of researchers revealed for the first
time that implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICD) can be
reprogrammed using a low cost, commercially available
programmer to deny service i.e. making them useless for
the patient [7]. After that, several others have demonstrate
2 Author Name: Paper Title
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d different scenarios for hacking embedded medical
devices including pacemakers and insulin pumps [8-10].
Securing such safety critical systems for instance, may
require multi-factor biometric template generation for
authentication to device programming and interconnected
adapter nodes for secure access to human interface [11-13].
2. IMPLANTABLE MEDICAL DEVICES (IMDS)
IMDs aim to address various malfunctioning of human
organs in order to ensure correct operation necessary for
the quality of life. Due to wireless connection with the
external world, these devices are potential candidate for
cyber-attacks, which can risk a victim’s life. Nowadays,
there are very few efficient solutions to these attacks, which
could address the issues of reliability, security and power
consumption. There have been efforts to secure the
communication link of medical implants [14]. One such
approach proposes using optical secure communication for
data exchange between IMD and external world with
minimal packet size and energy overheads [15]. Some
examples of IMDs include biosensors, open loop IMDs and
closed loop IMDs.
Figure 1. Biosensor patch based monitoring
Biosensors periodically transmit measurements to the
patch, which then sends the measurement to a peripheral
monitoring segment as shown in Fig. 1.
Figure 2. Open-loop implantable medical device
Open-loop IMDs often combine the monitor and
controller to form a patient interface. Based on the data
from the sensor, the patients are able to monitor their
health status as shown in Fig. 2. Based on the status,
commands are issued so that the open loop IMD can work
as required. The communication between the implant and
the peripheral interface is usually not encrypted.
In closed-loop IMDs, the control is established on the
interconnection between the sensor and thse actuator inside
the body as shown in Fig. 3. While patients do not have
access to monitor them, they do require skilled
configurations from the hospital/clinic. Due to power
consumption considerations, the communication is
typically not encrypted. Typically, the battery cannot be
charged and surgery is required to remove it.
Figure 3. Closed-loop implantable medical device
3. PACEMAKER IMPLANTS
A progressive debility in maximum heart rate (mHR) in
humans and other mammals is a fundamental phase of
aging [16]. The drop in mHR is independent of class, health
and lifestyle, affecting women and men equally from all
traits of life. Notably, mHR deterioration is the major factor
of age-dependent aerobic capacity decline that eventually
restricts functional independence for many older people.
The continuing reduction in mHR with age imitates a
slackening of the intrinsic pacemaker action of the
sinoatrial (S/A) node of the heart, which is the outcome of
electrical transformation of individual pacemaker cells
along with structural remodeling and a blunted β-
adrenergic response.
Continuous cardiac functioning is essential for human
beings. Therefore, patients with abnormal heart rhythms
are advised to get a pacemaker implanted in their body,
which are expected to be robust and fail-safe device with
durable battery life ending up to a decade. Thus, various
problems in the natural conduction system of the heart are
addressed by using an artificial pacemaker, which
constantly observes and corrects the heart rate whenever
required. A pacemaker is an electronic device used to
generate pacing signals for the heart in order to correct
irregular heart beat [17]. Irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
can may result in stroke, heart failure and other
complications related to the heart. Pacemaker therapy in
atrial fibrillation is also very effective [3]. Pacemaker
implants are placed under the skin near left or right
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collarbone through surgical procedure. Insulated leads are
inserted in the heart chambers through cephalic or
subclavian veins, which supply electrical impulses from
the implantable pulse generator (IPG) to the heart as
shown in Fig. 4. Moreover, it also senses the cardiac
depolarization [18]. Pacemaker is in fact, a real time
computer controlled system with predefined tasks
precedence. A low-power, robust microcontroller
interfaced with required memory space is chosen as the
core component of this intelligent machine [19].
Figure 4. Cardiac pacemaker implant with pacing leads
Figure 5. Inside block diagram of cardiac pacemaker [19]
Effectively, a cardiac pacemaker is composed of an
implantable pulse generator (IPG) connected to leads
(cathode/anode). The IPG is further composed of a battery,
analog/digital circuitry and sensing/actuation connectors
as shown in Fig. 5. A pacemaker can have unipolar or
bipolar electrode configuration in case one or two leads are
connected to the heart muscles. Several sensing and
control algorithms for pacemakers have been proposed in
the literature. For example, a wavelet based ECG detector
for implantable cardiac pacemaker is discussed in [20]
while a novel PID controller with adaptive correction
factor for heart rate control is presented in [21].
Modern pacemakers durability allows them to be used
for pacing as well as for other cardiac diagnostic
applications. Low energy electrical pulses generated by
pacemaker can speed up a slow heart rhythm, thus helping
to maintain a constant heart rate by harmonizing electrical
signaling between the upper and lower chambers as well
as between the ventricles of the heart.
A. Schematic of Pacemaker
Typically, a microcontroller based pacemaker design
involves related circuitry to sense and actuate the heart
muscle activity through electronics [17]. The basic
functionality of this electronics is to generate appropriate
pacing pulses based on the input from the electrodes. A
schematic of cardiac pacemaker is shown in Fig. 5.
B. Telemetry link
Pacemakers can transmit and receive information
through a wireless telemetry connection. The baud rate of
this two-way communication is around 300 bps. Using this
link, important data for example pulse amplitude and
duration, lead current, lead impedance and battery
condition can be assessed in real time [22]. An external
programmer is supplied to modify any of the
programmable parameters using encoded instruction set
and to retrieve diagnostic data.
The telemetry link provides an essential interface for
data exchange; however, it also results in the vulnerability
of the overall system. It is recommended to incorporate
encryption and password protection in the link to avoid
information breach by a malicious extruder.
4. CYBER ATTACK TYPES AND MECHANISMS
As discussed above, due to lack of security
mechanisms, wireless-enabled IMDs are susceptible to
different security threats [15]. In general, the target of
adversary attack aims to impact on confidentiality, integrity
and availability of the IMDs [13]. It is important to analyze
the medical CPS for resilience by modeling and simulating
cyber-attacks. Following attack models are described as the
possible threats to the medical CPS [23].
A. Basic Attack Models
In this type of attack, an attacker may use physical
alteration in order to disrupt signals of a medical CPS [24].
The original or the intended signal is us and vs is the
attacked signal. We assume that the attacker employs high-
energy radiation/electromagnetic signals directed to the
system’s sensors or communication devices. The attack
duration is assumed to be during the period [τstart, τend].
1) Denial of service (DoS) attack model: Also known
as the interruption attack model, DoS service attack results
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in no data communication during the period of attack. It is
represented as:
elseu
v
s
endstart
s
0
(1)
2) Man in the middle (MIM) attack model: This attack
refers to the action of a human evasdropper in the loop.
The intended signal us is transformed to the manipulated
signal um controlled by the eavesdropper during the attack
duration. It is represented as:
elseu
u
v
s
endstartm
s
(2)
3) Down-sampling attack model: This attack type
reduces the sampling rate of the intended signal. This
means that the quality of control (QoC) will be
considerably reduced due to this attack.
lows
low
downs
low
uv
elseu
rateu
u
0mod
(3)
B. Control parameter attack
In this type of cyber-attack, the invader directly get
access to the system controller in order to modify the
control parameters. Altering the control parameters to
arbitrary values induces an incorrect operation of the
device.
In this discussion, we assume that an attacker is able to
break into the system and is able to get access of the
control parameters directly thus bypassing the details of
the cybersecurity break-in to the system. Therefore, in the
control parameter attack, the attacker is able to destabilize
the system by amending the control parameters as follows:
elseu
atk
v
par
endstartpar
par
(4)
Where,
par
u
and
par
v
are the intended and the
modified parameters respectively. Moreover, atkpar denotes
the modified parameter value. The vulnerable control
parameters of the device will be changed by the attacker’s
supplied parameter because of this attack.
C. Coordinated Attack
In an attempt to design robust medical CPS, such safety
critical systems are equipped with redundant physical
components to withstand basic cyber-attacks. Thus,
attackers plan to execute a coordinated attack that is a
combination of two or more basic attack mechanisms in
order to sabotage the correct operation of an embedded
medical implant. As an example, we consider a coordinated
attack comprising of man-in-the-middle attack coordinated
with a control parameter attack.
(5)
5. SIMULATION RESULTS
The system model is simulated in Matlab/Simulink to
demonstrate the impact of cyber-attack on the performance
of cardiac pacemaker control. The closed loop control of
heart rate is achieved by a pacemaker sub-system using a
feedback loop [21]. The complete system is shown in Fig.
6 where R(s) is the desired heart rate and Y(s) is the actual
heart rate. The sensing of heart rate is taken as ideal with
no delay or lag. Thus, its transfer function H(s) is assumed
as unity. It is important to note that the set-point heart rate
varies in human w.r.t age.
Figure 6. Block diagram of cardiac pacemaker
A. Control design for Pacemaker
The heart transfer function included in the cardio-
vascular system is taken as a second order under-damped
model as follows [25]:
ss
sGh8.20
169
)( 2
(6)
The pacemaker dynamics are represented as a first
order lag model as follows:
8
8
)(
s
sGp
(7)
The desirable range is between 60-100 beats per minutes
(bpm). If the heart rate is slower than 60 bpm, it is known
as bradycardia, while if it is higher than 100 bpm, it is
characterized as tachycardia. Both these abnormalities
require appropriate correction. We have designed three
different control schemes i.e. Proportional Integral
derivative (PID), Pole Placement Control (PPC) and
Linear Quadratic Regulator (LQR) to demonstrate the
tracking behavior of pacemaker on heart rate. The time
response behavior of these controllers are tested to see if
the desired heart rate is higher or lower than the nominal
heart rate of 72 bpm.
1) PID Controller
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A base line PID controller is applied for heart rate
tracking control. The PID compensator is simulated in
Simulink as follows:
s
N
N
D
s
IPsGPID 1
1
1
)(
(8)
Following gains are used: Proportional (P) = 1.792, Integral
(I) = 0.231, Derivative (D) = 0.302 and the filter coefficient
(N) =1727.04.
Figure 7. Control performance with PID Controller
Figure 8. Performance comparison of PID and ISA-PID controllers
As seen from the step response, the performance
of the PID controller even after gains tuning is not good.
We next try to add an ISA-PID controller for both reference
tracking and disturbance rejection. A pre-filter F(s)
involves the PID gains from the original controller and a
set-point weight b as follows:
ip
ip KsK
KsbK
sF
)(
(9)
The performance comparison of both PID and ISA-
PID controllers is shown in Fig. 8. It is evident that ISA-
PID offers reduced overshoot and quick convergence with
improved set-point tracking.
2) Pole placement Controller
Pole placement controller permits the designer to place
the closed loop dynamics as required. Out of three closed
loop poles, dominant pair is placed such that the rise time
(tr) is less than 0.15 sec, settling time (ts) is less than 0.5
sec, the overshoot is less than 5% while steady state error
is zero. These requirements are met with poles placed at [-
10.5±10.71i, -20]. The controller gains to shift these poles
to the desired locations are found to be Kc = [12.2 478
450].
Figure 9. Control performance with Pole Placement Controller
1) LQR Controller
Linear quadratic control is used as an optimal
controller for pacemaker heart rate tracking by minimizing
the following quadratic cost function:
dtRuuQxxJ TT )(
(10)
The weighting matrices ‘Q’ and ‘R’ are adjusted to penalize
the state variables and the control signals. For higher values
of these matrices, these signals are more penalized. After
multiple iterations, the closed loop system is best seen with
rise time of 0.22 sec and overshoot of 3.67% using these Q
and R weighting matrices as shown in Eq. 9.
5
5
210,
1000
0100
0010
RQ
(11)
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From Fig. 7, 8, 9, it is clear that although the base line PID
controller shows faster response, there is more than 5%
overshoot in the response and the steady state error is non-
zero. However, the PPC and LQR control results are quite
similar in terms of transient and steady state characteristics
with PPC showing a faster response as compared to LQR.
Figure 10. Control performance with LQR Controller
B. Cyber attack simulation on Pacemaker
We aim to generate different scenarios of cyber-attack
for the vulnerability analysis of our closed loop pacemaker.
We considered only the base line PID controller to simply
the analysis. The case study describes a patient with age
related bradycardia whose heart rate drops below 60 bpm.
His cardiologist advised for the pacemaker implant, which
enables a normal heart rate of 72 bpm. The man-in-the-
middle (MIM) attack during 8 to 14 sec alters the correct
reference value for the pacemaker control and the heart rate
drops back to 52 bpm during this period.
Figure 11. Pacemaker under man-in-the-middle attack during 8≤ t ≤14
In the second scenario, a coordinated attack is
simulated in which the reference heart rate is altered by
MIM attack as well as the control parameter change (by
reducing the derivative gain (Kd) up to 90% of its nominal
value) resulting in pronounced overshoot in the response.
The simulated cyber-attack is successful in disabling the
pacemaker during attack period and generating
bradycardia.
Figure 12. Pacemaker under coordinated attack combining MIM and
Control parmeter attack during 8≤ t ≤14
These two scenarios depict the vulnerability of the
pacemaker devices to cyber-attack. These vulnerability
effects are more evident in the presence of coordinated
attacks. Thus, in addition to the electromagnetic
interference (EMI) effects, cardiac implants may fail to
provide therapy when it is needed or delivering therapy
when it is not needed (resulting in tachycardia/bradycardia)
due to cyber-attacks.
6. CONCLUSION
In the present work, different control techniques are
analyzed to design Heart Rate controller for the embedded
control of pacemaker. Initially, a baseline PID controller is
tuned to satisfy different performance parameters. The PID
controller response is improved by using ISA-PID so that a
better tracking response with disturbance rejection can be
obtained. Moreover, in order to compare the performance,
an optimal LQR and state feedback pole placement
controller (PPC) are also simulated. It is observed that the
response of pole placement controller is better among all
other designs. Next, analysis is done to simulate cyber-
attack on the closed loop system. Two cyber-attacks,
namely MIM and Coordinated attack are simulated to see
the performance. Results have shown that the cyber-attacks
are capable of deteriorating the response of pacemaker by
injecting a variation in set point tracking or by varying any
of the control parameter of the closed-loop system. In
future, extensive simulation models will be developed to
understand the effect of cyber-attacks as well as adaptive
strategies to detect and counter such cyber-attacks on
medical devices.
Int. J. Com. Dig. Sys. #, No.#, ..-.. (Mon-20..) 7
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Muhammad Muneeb Ur Rehman is
pursuing his M.S in Mechatronics
Engineering from Air University,
Islamabad, Pakistan. Previously, he
obtained his Bachelor of Mechatronics
Engineering from the same university
in 2019. His interests include modeling
and simulation, design of robots and
mechatronic systems, control design etc. He is a student member
of IEEE.
Hafiz Zia Ur Rehman is working as
an Assistant Professor in the
department of Mechatronics and
Biomedical Engineering, Air
University, Islamabad, Pakistan. He
obtained his Ph.D. in mechatronics
engineering from Hanyang University,
South Korea in 2019. His research
interests include medical image
processing, computer vision and adaptive filtering. He is a
member of Pakistan Engineering Council (PEC).
Zeashan Hameed Khan is working in
the department of Mechatronics and
Biomedical Engineering, Air
University, Islamabad, Pakistan as an
Associate Professor. He obtained his
Ph.D. in control systems from
University of Grenoble, France in
2010. His research interests include
robust control, networked control
systems, cyber physical systems and
biomedical control. He has written more than 50 papers including
journal papers, conference papers and book chapters. He is a
member of IEEE and PEC.
... Consequently, attackers could bypass security mechanisms that run in subsequent layers, such as the operating system, allowing them virtually unfettered access to the device. For example, a study conducted on cyber-attacks on medical implants demonstrated the effects of firmware and communication protocol vulnerabilities on pacemakers [8]. The inability to provide authentication and confidentiality on the remote management channels resulted in successful attacks. ...
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... Networked devices can be turned off, reconfigured or reprogrammed, which could put patients at risk or have catastrophic consequences on their health [22]. For instance, it was shown that malware could be deployed to pacemakers or insulin pumps [3,18] that could quickly result in the patient's death. ...
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