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Beware of Heart Hackers

Beware of Heart Hackers

By Chris Lochery

It’s the news that witch doctors and voodoo practitioners around the world have been dreading for years - technology may have finally made them redundant. No longer do you need to summon the powers of the spiritual world if you want to take control of another’s heart. All you need now is a computer with a WiFi connection.

That, and a victim who has been fitted with a pacemaker.

Doctors have recently begun equipping pacemakers with wireless receivers and transmitters. This
eradicates the need for frequent hospital visits by enabling remote patient assessments and device checks. But it has suddenly struck experts that there might be a little bit of a snag in the whole set-up: namely that the poor patients carrying these instruments are at risk from hackers.

In the interests of full disclosure, it should be made entirely clear that there has not yet been a single reported case of cardiac hacking. Millions of people around the world have been successfully fitted with pacemakers, which have saved countless numbers of lives. This is because, thankfully, the only people who have had the frightening idea to meddle with the technology so far are the good guys.

Still, researchers from three top universities have successfully proven that using inexpensive radio software it is possible to intercept and interfere with the signals sent to and from these pacemakers. They've been able to download, from a distance of several feet, the confidential medical information of the patient as a result.

They have also found not only that they can reprogram the device’s settings remotely but they can also issue their own commands to it - rogue impulses that might trigger potentially lethal heart palpitations.

It should be stressed, however, that there is nothing in the report to suggest that anyone who currently wears, or will be required to wear, a pacemaker is at risk. In fact, it seems that the worst thing to come out of the whole story will be the inevitable soap opera plotline or straight-to-video movie that will use the idea of cardiac hacking as its central premise.

You can imagine it all too clearly. A young and socially awkward computer genius falling in love with a beautiful, frail girl with ventricular difficulties. Rather than confess his true feelings for her, he develops a device in his bedroom which he keeps in his pocket to wirelessly interfere with her heart rate whenever she sees him - perhaps causing her heart to skip a beat - sneakily duping her into thinking she has fallen in love with him.

It’s ‘Love Potion No. 9’ for the digital age and that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a truly terrifying thought indeed.

More matters of the heart:

Bad Breath For A Good Heart
  My Heart Will Go On
Hot Scientist of the Week
  Goal Defence, Heart Attack!

Image: Jonathan Gruber/Manu M

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02 Dec 2008
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