Telesurgery via robots is the answer to many people’s prayers, doctors and patients included. However, a new study shows they can be toyed with from afar.
Robotic surgery has transformed the way patients are treated around the world. Ever since the first robotic gallbladder procedure in 2001, this futuristic style of medicine has become so commonplace, it’s not really futuristic at all.
The DaVinci Robot. © Intuitive Surgical, Inc.
Have you ever wondered, though, whether or not these robots could be hacked, just like your computer or other digital health devices? It seems some researchers at the University of Washington had the same question and the results of their study are worrisome to say the least.
According to their study, not only can robots be hacked into, their cyber hands can be manipulated for harm.
We demonstrate the ability to maliciously control a wide range of robots' functions, and even to completely ignore or override command inputs from the surgeon. We further find that it is possible to abuse the robot's existing emergency stop (E-stop) mechanism to execute efficient (single packet) attacks.
Ask the expert
Technology Review recently interviewed some of the study’s authors and has posted a very detailed analysis of just how easy it is to hack into these telesurgery robots. The article is also very detailed and therefore helpful for any IT professionals who manage telesurgery for their institutions.
Just as patients undergoing surgery from humans worry about the stability and steadiness of their surgeons' hands (especially during micro-surgery, for example), patients undergoing telesurgery via robotic hands may have a whole new problem to worry about.
By hacking the router that connected the doctor to the robot, researchers were able to change the commands so that the robot’s motions were jerky and erratic. They made the movements longer or shorter than the doctor intended, triggered an automatic stop mechanism that prevented the surgery from continuing, and eventually were able to take over the controls from the surgeon completely. They also found that the video connection that allowed the surgeon to see what she was operating on was publicly accessible.
It seems just when we, the patients and the end users of breakthrough technologies such as robots, feel we’re in good hands at what is perhaps the most vulnerable moment in our lives (going under the knife, cyber or otherwise), along comes a reason to be even more afraid.
Due to the open and uncontrollable nature of communication networks, it becomes easy for malicious entities to jam, disrupt, or take over the communication between a robot and a surgeon.
- Tamara Bonaci, study lead, University of Washington
The University of Washington researchers have given us reason for hope, however.
The researchers suggest a number of ways that telesurgery can be more secure, including encrypting data as it's transferred from surgeon to robot, making the software more sensitive to errors and attempted data changes, and better monitoring of the network status before and during surgery. These changes wouldn’t make the robots immune to attacks, but would be a big step in the right direction. Having this conversation and putting security policies in place is essential before telesurgery becomes standard, the authors write, in order for the public to feel safe about having such a procedure.
According to Popular Science, sales of medical robots are increasing by 20 percent each year, although they are far from standard yet.
I am very interested in the future of robotics for the promise it holds for treating a variety of conditions, locally and remotely. In the grand scheme of things, though, robotics have only been in use for a mere blink of an eye so one can only hope that medical futurists and visionaries will review the results of this very interesting study and consider them as food for thought and action.
Top photo: Johan Viirok
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.