Hacking Into Your Heart: Say It Isn't So


Anyone who uses the Internet in this era of high-speed connections knows he or she has to guard againts hackers.

Anyone who uses the Internet in this era of high-speed connections knows he or she has to guard againts hackers. Those who enjoy thwarting security measures, stealing information and putting new types of viruses into cyberspace have become "Frustration Central" to both many systems operators and personal computer users.

Your computer is one matter, but, according to the results of a study released Wednesday, a cardiac patient’s body could be “hacked.’’

The study — the results of which appeared in both print media and on several websites Wednesday, was led by a pair of computer scientists, Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington and Kevin E. Fu of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and cardiologist Dr. William H. Maisel of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, was designed to identify future problems.

The situation is this: implantable devices such as cardiac defibrillators and pacemakers are equipped with wireless technology, allowing for remote device checks and providing patients with much more freedom. The study demonstrates that patients’ private information could be extracted and their devices reprogrammed without a patient or physician’s authorization or knowledge.

Maisel, in statement, said, "One of the purposes of this research is to encourage the medical-device industry to think more carefully about the security and privacy of patient information, particularly as wireless communication becomes more common. Fortunately, there are some safeguards already in place, but device manufacturers can do better."

The study, which has been peer-reviewed, will be presented and published at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Symposium on Security and Privacy in Oakland, Calif., May 19.

At present, these devices receive short-range wireless signals over several feet, but technology will soon allow an expansion of both the range and the opportunity for the information to be intercepted.

"We hope our research is a wake-up call for the industry," said Kohno. "In the 1970s, the Bionic Woman was a dream, but modern technology is making it a reality."

All this makes one wonder if some of the newer heart monitors, which transmit information to a base station over short distances could be similarly affected. I have had experience with such monitors during my cardiac recovery and feel certain only my cardiologists received the information they were medically looking for.

What this shows is how new technology begets new irritations in society. Given that premise, this study certainly came at a good time. It is so much better to be safe than sorry, even though this report has me visualizing device manufacturers including some type of firewall in future pacemakers and defibrillators.

A firewall in your chest? Who would have though of such a thing even 10 years ago. Also, who would have visualized the advances in cardiac care over the same period?

Hackers, with all the sending via e-mail and through the Internet of my writing, have challenged me in the past. If I ever need an implantable cardiac device, I certainly don’t want them challenging my body.

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