FuTuRology: Wearables and Smart Medical Devices, Gears for a Data-Driven Healthcare Future
This is the second post in the “FuTuRology” project, a blog series where the Trend Micro Forward-Looking Threat Research (FTR) team predicts the future of popular technologies. Make sure to check the first entry of the series for a brief introduction on the project.
Predicting the future sucks. It does because we are never right. If what we say does not come to pass, we look bad. On the other hand, if what we say happens, naysayers will say that it’s because the attackers read the blog too and we gave them ideas—the self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. That is how it is for infosec fortune tellers.
Today’s topic is very exciting: healthcare technology.
Let me start by mentioning a technology we have at present: fitness wearables. These little devices are already in mass production and selling like hotcakes, just look at vendors like Fitbit or Jawbone®. Last February’s Mobile World Congress at Barcelona saw us trying out device after device in all kinds of flavors. Some vendors were already aiming at niche markets, like pets and children, but don’t let me stray from the topic at hand. These wearables, when strapped on our bodies, can count the steps we take and our heartbeats per minute, then estimate the calories we burn. Their companion mobile apps let us log weight changes and our food intakes to better estimate our calories and compare how much we are over/under-eating. All this information is uploaded to the vendor’s cloud so they can show us pretty colored graphs. So far, so good.
Let us look at the near future. Judging by some crowdfunded projects and rising public interest, something big is coming soon. I’m talking about devices that measure health parameters at will and upload data to the vendor’s cloud. What kinds of data? There’s body temperature, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, respiratory rate, electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), and others like them. Once the data is uploaded, the server algorithmically analyzes whether those values are normal or a bit off based on your personal historical data. This technology promises to know whether you’re going to become sick before you actually do or even notice that you might. Awesome tech!
The similarities between fitness wearables and smart medical devices are pretty obvious. Will we see an amalgamation of both at some point in the future on the same device? It’s hard to say but it’s probable. I’d venture to say it’s even more likely that we’d see health data correlation at a scale never seen before. From the medical point of view, mining both data sets is huge. The fitness data provides us the actions, while the medical data provides the effects. Does a higher intake of bananas start a metabolic effect that makes us sick after two months? Does this only happen in certain regions? Or perhaps only in populations of a certain age? Even simpler than that, when does a flu outbreak start in the world and how does its impact change based on your activity level? How cool is this?
Once we have this technology implemented on a massive scale, we can use it for different things too. How about enabling remote doctor house calls, where the doctor can triage patients based on their current medical data? This could lower medical costs quite a bit. Perhaps we can use these doctor visits in remote locations in case someone can’t physically make it in time for the diagnosis. More interesting than that, outbreak specialists can virtually be anywhere in the world, taking body measurements remotely and studying the geographical impact of a spreading disease from their home laboratories.
Affordable DNA sequencing is another healthcare technology that might have great impact on all of us in the future. When the cost of this technology gets low enough, we can all get tested to see what kinds of illnesses we are prone to. We may also prepare by making lifestyle and dietary changes to avoid them. This can be a big change in the healthcare field.
I’ll let you, the reader, create attack scenarios for each of those. Possible attack vectors don’t always focus on stealing money or credentials (to enable the much-touted ‘identity theft’ or even user extortion) from users. The most likely kinds of threats we expect to see – at least initially – would be focused on privacy. If we start uploading medical data to the cloud, we upload very confidential information to places we do not control. Privacy is clearly a concern as would be any denial of service (DDoS) attack on remote medical services or data tampering of medical diagnosis at any point.
It’s difficult to be more concrete than this at this point or we run the risk of plotting a science-fiction movie very quickly. Remember that, in any new technology with a lot of moving pieces, poking the engine with a stick will cause gears to fly. These technologies are still in the works and are not even remotely ready yet. At this point, these future healthcare scenarios are purely hypothetical, but still, the intellectual exercise of attacking castles in the air is always interesting, isn’t it?