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If a robot surgery system gets hacked, who’s liable?

Last week, we raised the question about who could be held responsible if a victim of robotic surgery winds up suffering complications from the procedure. A recent court case that sought and failed to hold the maker of one such device accountable suggests where the weak link might be.

It appears to be centered on the fact that there are no clear standards and policies regarding how the new high-tech tools are put to use. That item noted that lacking clarity on policies means that it becomes hard to identify when there’s been a failure in applying accepted standards of care that might warrant a medical malpractice claim.

This week, we look at a related issue that may have even more far-reaching implications. It has to do with the use of telesurgery — the facilitating of robotic surgical procedures remotely over the Internet. Think of it sort of like Skyping with life or death consequences. And the question is what happens if the system gets hacked?

If the work of a group of University of Washington in Seattle technology students is used as the gauge, the answer is that things could get perilous.

The idea of telesurgery is rather new. The first such operation, a transatlantic procedure, only occurred in 2001. The communication to make it happen was fed through a dedicated line set up just for that surgery. Expensive. But the development of communications over the World Wide Web has made it possible to do remote operations a bit more cost effectively.

With no recorded instances of trouble in operations to date, the UW students decided to see whether the system could be hacked and to what effect. What they found was that it could be done fairly easily. And depending on what commands were used, a robotic surgical system could be made hard or impossible to control. Imagine the possibilities for mayhem.

The UW team says the risk of a hack in telesurgery may not be high right now, but with sales of robotic surgery systems increasing at a rate of about 20 percent a year, it’s worth starting to worry about cyber security.