Cybersecurity, 3G and Medical Devices
Sunsetting 3G has negative effects for medical devices
by Charles Parker, II
The funny thing about technology is it marches on, just like time. You can indirectly try to slow it down, but this will continue. On the corporate level or the researcher in their own lab, we are always looking for an improvement. We, as a civilization, aren’t content with the status quo. This is a good thing, otherwise we would still be using those handy flip phones.
One area this continues in is with communication. This has been driven by the baset amount of data created every single day, new equipment (medical, smart phones, etc.) requiring this to work optimally, and organizations creating new protocols to improve the industry. Overall, as the mode of communication or analogy equipment gets older and improved models come online and into production, the older versions aren’t needed anymore. THis makes perfect sense and optimizes the subject equipment or communication. The public isn’t going to rely on or use old technology that is slower, doesn’t work as well, or can’t handle the current needs. These older, less used technologies are no longer viable. This is being shown with the 3G network. This is set for end-of-life (EOL) in early 2022. This will prove interesting as this is still used by older medical devices, medical tracking devices, vehicles (consumer and commercial), phones, and home alarms.
3G’s Downward Spiral
For years, 3G was the vital mainstay of technology. With many people, this was their lifeline from rural areas for the medical devices maintaining their health, entertainment, and many other aspects of their daily activities. As technology advanced, there has been a lesser need overall for 3G. At this point, while there are a few use cases, 3G predominantly is not germane. 4G has been operating for years and is implemented for nearly all new products (nearly is used instead of all since there may be one or two products being newly manufactured that may use 3G as an option). 5G continues to grow in acceptance and usage. 6G is on the horizon as the next technologic wave.
In the US, AT&T will close its 3G networks by February 2022, if all goes as planned. T-Mobile plans on closing the Sprint 3G CDMA network on 1/1/2022 and its 3G UMTS in April 2022.
Medical Device Applicability
Without doing a bit of research, the medical device field may not be on the top of the list to be affected by 3G’s EOL. This will, however, affect hundreds of thousands of medical tracking devices. In particular, the Mobile Personal Emergency Response (mPERS) users will need to figure out what to do. These have been used significantly since 2007. These generally have a form factor of a pendant or device worn on a belt. After 3G sunsets, these devices will still monitor, but won’t be able to communicate with the base or app any of the pertinent data, including life-saving alerts. The users will need to replace them with 4G , 5G, or WiFi devices. This isn’t a difficult task, with the user just purchasing this online or in person. There are issues though. The affected group may not have the funds to pay for the new devices. Depending on the function and manufacturer, these devices may cost at least $150. This group includes the elderly and those with a limited income. These devices may also not have the same form factor, as the 4G chips are larger. Without some of these devices, the patients will be shut-ins. They will also have less mobility to go to doctor appointments, errands, visiting family, seeing friends, grocery shopping, and other tasks.
What are the patients supposed to do who can’t afford to replace their devices? The manufacturer’s simple advice is to just go and purchase another. This always isn’t possible, especially to the economically vulnerable. Another scenario may occur later, after 4G has been in place for a bit. With any technology, as time passes, more vulnerabilities are detected. With 3G, this is bound to happen also. What would happen when an enterprising attacker finds a handful of these, and with a 3G emulator, drives around town broadcasting? What wonderful data might be found. This definitely would not affect a majority of the population. This still however has a place for discussion. The affected groups should receive answers as to what they should do, or at least options. The manufacturers are happy enough with telling these groups to deal with it, but is that really the optimal, best, and ethical response?
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