The danger of modern medical devices : Keynote by Karen Sandler at LCA 2018

Karen Sandler the cyborg lawyer (quite literally; she has a defibrillator in her heart) has always been a source of inspiration to me. Unfortunate me has missed three invaluable opportunities to meet her in person. But I never miss a chance to see if I can meet, or see her online. So whenever she is giving a talk, I eagerly wait for the videos to come online.

I’m a big fan if you can’t tell :)

This year she was one of the keynote speakers at LINUXCONFAU,2018 and I was (as usual) is at the mercy of the conference organizers to watch her talk as soon as possible. They were very efficient. The video was posted really quickly
Thank You, LCA!

The first time I encountered Karen was in 2016 when I watched her [2012 Keynote at LCA, Freedom in my heart and everywhere. The talk pointed me to the problems which were an integral part of our life, crucial to our existence. The proprietary software in our medical devices and the danger lies in them. The lawyer in me started looking at all medical devices with a suspicious eye. Doctors appeared to me like Agent Smith and us patients, like Neo having some bug tracker inside our body.
On another very personal note, she was the first person who actually talked about something that I could understand, connect with, though it was technical at the core.

This year her keynote at LCA was titled: “Six Years Later, or Hey, did you ever get the source code to that thing in your heart?”. This talk is, in essence, the epilogue, to her 2012 keynote. It involved the dangers of having proprietary, closed source software in medical devices and generating awareness around it.The talk to me was a story connecting her personal life and her passion, software freedom.

She started her story with a question, which she was often asked after she gave her talk in 2012, “Hey did you ever get your source code?” By definition, a cyborg is “a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.” Pacemakers, hearing aids, even our innocent looking glasses make us cyborgs. If not all, at least a vast number of us humans, are cyborgs. The distinction between who is a cyborg and who is not is becoming increasingly blurred.

We all are in the process of becoming or unbecoming cyborgs.

And so, she aims to create a world where we have a number of free and open source alternatives to proprietary software. Moreover, she raised another fundamental point on the ethics of such software in devices that our lives, literally, depend on.

Being well aware of our ignorance, she walked us through various aspects of the legal, technical, community, and the social aspects of having buggy software in medical devices.
In her own words these wifi enabled devices "have the worst of both the worlds”, running proprietary software inside them and no security at all.

In the next part of her talk, she discussed the DMCA, Digital Millennium Copyright Act, 1998. It forbids, criminalizes any act to bypass access controls for devices like these, even if it is permissible under the Copyright Act itself. Therefore the passwords which the copyright holder has put in place cannot be changed. No exceptions, no exemptions. So under any circumstance, no one could check the security/safety of their own device.
Then she broke the good news on how she got the exemption, citing her own scenario. She shared her personal stories to explain the situations and dangers that lay.
She also ran through various incidents showing vulnerabilities of various medical devices.

The best part of the talk came in the closing moments, where this free and open source advocate held forth on how can we implement and follow free software in our daily life.

To summarise,

The talk enlightened us about existing and emerging threats in the sphere of medical devices.
Why and how free and open source software has solutions to many of these situations.
Most importantly she emphasized that we as a community have a responsibility towards making the situation better.

You are a true superhero, when you have skin in the game (literally your heart in the game) and can actually stick to your beliefs and passions, even your life is at risk.

Thank you Karen, for being able to think differently and for your constant efforts to make the world a better place.
Looking forward to your next talk. See you sometime, somewhere, and until then will adore you online.

To read further about medical devices and tracking, go to this post.

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