Around the Web: Cybersecurity and Malware
Published: June 14, 2019 by Katie Kuryla
Researchers in Israel say they have developed a malware to draw attention to serious security weaknesses in critical medical imaging equipment used for diagnosing conditions and the networks that transmit those images — vulnerabilities that could have potentially life-altering consequences if unaddressed.
The malware they created would let attackers automatically add realistic, malignant-seeming growths to CT or MRI scans before radiologists and doctors examine them. Or it could remove real cancerous nodules and lesions without detection, leading to misdiagnosis and possibly a failure to treat patients who need critical and timely care.
Yisroel Mirsky, Yuval Elovici and two others at the Ben-Gurion University Cyber Security Research Center in Israel who created the malware say that attackers could target a presidential candidate or other politicians to trick them into believing they have a serious illness and cause them to withdraw from a race to seek treatment.
The research isn’t theoretical. In a blind study the researchers conducted involving real CT lung scans, 70 of which were altered by their malware, they were able to trick three skilled radiologists into misdiagnosing conditions nearly every time. In the case of scans with fabricated cancerous nodules, the radiologists diagnosed cancer 99 percent of the time. In cases where the malware removed real cancerous nodules from scans, the radiologists said those patients were healthy 94 percent of the time.
The study focused on lung cancer scans only. But the attack would work for brain tumors, heart disease, blood clots, spinal injuries, bone fractures, ligament injuries and arthritis, Mirsky said.
Attackers could choose to modify random scans to create chaos and mistrust in hospital equipment, or they could target specific patients, searching for scans tagged with a specific patient’s name or ID number. In doing this, they could prevent patients who have a disease from receiving critical care or cause others who aren’t ill to receive unwarranted biopsies, tests and treatment. The attackers could even alter follow-up scans after treatment begins to falsely show tumors spreading or shrinking. Or they could alter scans for patients in drug and medical research trials to sabotage the results.
To develop their malware, the Israeli researchers used machine learning to train their code to rapidly assess scans passing through a PACS network and to adjust and scale fabricated tumors to conform to a patient’s unique anatomy and dimensions to make them more realistic. The entire attack can be fully automated so that once the malware is installed on a hospital’s PACS network, it will operate independently of the researchers to find and alter scans, even searching for a specific patient’s name.
To get the malware onto a PACS network, attackers would need either physical access to the network — to connect a malicious device directly to the network cables — or they could plant malware remotely from the Internet. The researchers found that many PACS networks are either directly connected to the Internet or accessible through hospital machines that are connected to the Internet.