Safety of fitness trackers is life or death issue

Author

Matthew Sparkes Deputy Head of Technology

February 6, 2015

Government adviser warns that demand for wearable gadgets is sparking technology race that prioritises innovation over safety

As we increasingly come to rely on fitness trackers and wearable gadgets to monitor our health we are exposing ourselves to “devastating threats”, a government adviser has warned.

Tony Dyhouse, director at the government-led Trustworthy Software Initiative and former cyber security director at UK defence giant Qinetiq, said that the rapidly expanding market and soaring sales are tempting companies to prioritise new devices and features rather than security and reliability.

Because of the medical nature of the collected data, any loss, corruption or hacking could prove fatal. Misreported blood sugar levels could put diabetics at risk, for example.

“Even major vendors are sacrificing quality for quantity in their drive to rush a constant stream of updated and new applications to market, with software being created with an unacceptable number of vulnerabilities, storing up problems for the future,” he said.

“With applications now available to monitor everything from blood-pressure to skin temperature, this has worrying implications.

“We already see wearable health monitors for babies allowing parents to monitor their vital signs at night, and a new ‘Smart Teddy’ which helps reduce staff time for nurses by automatically collecting and sending wireless data on a child’s blood-oxygen levels, body temperature and heart-beat. But any vulnerability in the software or system could result in the information being incorrect and could have disastrous consequences.”

Any security vulnerability in the software used by fitness trackers, or the apps to which they connect, could potentially leave their data open to interception or even alteration – potentially allowing hackers to make changes that had fatal repercussions.

Imagine, for example, a heart rate monitoring device being hacked and the figures being changed, leading to dangerously incorrect medication or doses being prescribed by a doctor.

Cisco released a report last week predicting that there will be half a billion wearable devices in use around the world within four years, including smart watches and fitness trackers – up from just 109m last year. Within the UK there to be 16.4m wearables by 2019, up from 2.8m last year.

The company predicts that each of these devices will be creating 569MB of data per month by 2019, up from 119MB last year. Much of that will be highly sensitive medical data.

“Undoubtedly there are many benefits we can obtain from such real-time and regular access to our biological data. However as we become more dependent on such technologies to regulate our health, poorly written software could expose us to devastating new threats,” said Dyhouse.

“Software vulnerabilities have always been at the heart of most data breaches and have often been seen by users solely as a nuisance issue; but the rise of wearable health technology now means that improvements in reliability and security of software can really be a life or death issue.

“The real question is whether manufacturers are prepared to put customer confidence and safety before market pressures.”

This article was written by Matthew Sparkes Deputy Head of Technology from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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