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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Telesurgery: Danger of hacking

Posted on 20th January 2016 at 11:25am

With new technologies introduced every day, the opportunities for improving disaster response are endless. But some of the technologies have downsides that can compromise the benefits. One such technology is the telesurgery robot. While these telerobots have incredible potential to perform life-saving surgery in areas that lack trained surgeons, issues with cybersecurity can put the operation – and therefore lives – at risk.

Raven II was developed by UW researchers to explore the boundaries of robotic-assisted surgery (photo: University of Washington)

Although no incidents in which a telesurgery operation was compromised have been recorded yet, the ability of malicious outsiders to hack these telerobots is concerning. 

Tamara Bonaci and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle demonstrated how someone could disrupt the behaviour or take over a telerobot during surgery. She and her team tried out three types of attacks: the first type deleted, delayed, or re-ordered the operator’s delays, making the robot’s movement jerky and difficult to control; the second type modified the intention of signals by changing the distance an arm should move or the degree it should rotate; and the final type of attack involved completely taking over the robot.

These three types of attacks showed how effective – and dangerous – the hijacking of a telerobot can be. If a telesurgery operation is disrupted, the results can be fatal.

The use of encryption and authentication can eliminate many of these attacks, but they cannot prevent every attack. When moving forward with telesurgery and similar technologies, operators must be aware of the security and privacy risks involved and consider how to mitigate them.

By Megan Mantaro, and Ian Portelli

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