Could information from pacemakers be hacked?

Published: May. 31, 2013 at 2:48 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 11, 2013 at 3:03 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - You probably don't think twice about using your cell phone, microwave, or walking through a metal detector.  Someone with a pacemaker may be a little more cautious.

"With cell phones, iPads, technology is developing rapidly across the board," said Dr. Amy Epps with Lexington Cardiology. "The main thing we tell people is just don't hold it too close, usually a 6-inch window and you're fine."

The device could disrupt the signaling.  Both a pacemaker and defibrillator regulate your heartbeat through electric pulses. Checking that information is as close as the computer modem in your home.  

"We're able to monitor these devices even remotely from home, there's usually a little modem you have in your bedroom and then every night can download data off the device so it can tell us what your average heart rate is, if you're having some fast heart rates or slow heart rates," said Epps.  

Researchers question not if that information is vulnerable to hackers, but the signals between your heart and the device.  Their concern is analog sensors used in some of these devices blindly trust the message they receive.

Using a surgical training dummy, researchers at USC here in the Midlands and others wanted to see if they could alter the information the pacemaker and defibrillator receives.

"To make the sensor actually report data that does not reflect what is really happening," said Wenyuan Xu with USC Computer Science and Engineering.

Researchers found they could bypass the device's safety layers.  First the pacemaker.

"We can send out an interference signal so that the pacemaker thinks there's a heartbeat, but actually there is not," said Xu.

Then an implantable defibrillator.

"We can let the defibrillator sense there's an episode and arrhythmia episode happening, but actually the heartbeat was normal," said Xu.

Researchers don't want those with pacemakers or internal defibrillators to panic.  There's been no known case where a device has been hacked. In fact, the researcher's device had to be laying on a person's chest to fool the pacemaker.

"Your body acts as very good shielding, it will block a majority of  interference and your body is protecting you," said Xu.

They say it's worth pointing out the risks to manufacturers, in hopes they'll make the devices safer.

"So with the pacemaker we propose an idea, we can let the pacemaker to probe the heart, to probe the cardiac tissue to find out of the previous heartbeat that the pacemaker sensed is indeed coming from the heart," said Xu.

Ultimately protecting patients.

Researchers also found they could tamper with electronics you carry.  They were able to use radio signals to convince the microphone on the phone paired with a Bluetooth headset that a caller was dialing touch tone selection at an automated banking line.

Copyright 2013 WIS.  All rights reserved.