About three million people worldwide have pacemakers implanted, with about 600,000 more joining their ranks annually. In spite of the widespread use of these heart-regulating devices and their efficacy in reducing cardiac failure, they've been the subject of much disturbing news. We've witnessed a constant barrage of safety warnings and manufacturing glitches over the years, culminating in the 2005 recall of over 100,000 defibrillating pacemakers from one company alone, Guidant Corporation -- not to mention the frequent buzz about pacemakers being vulnerable to magnetic fields, scanning devices, and so on. But now there's a new twist on the pacemaker saga -- one that might make Agatha Christie want to start writing again.
A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Washington recently discovered that one of the most common forms of pacemakers, the wireless implantable cardiac defribillator (ICD), can be remotely hacked. ICDs have computers built into them in order to monitor the patient's heartbeat, and these computers store confidential medical and patient information. The computer signals the device to deliver a little shock that regulates the heart beat when it slows down or becomes irregular, while a built-in wireless radio sends information to medical practitioners so that they can make modifications remotely, without surgery.
Apparently, the signals emanating from the ICD devices can be intercepted, and the confidential patient information stolen. But even worse, ICDs can be made to deliver harmful shocks. The research team stated, "Our investigation shows that an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (1) is potentially susceptible to malicious attacks that violate the privacy of patient information and medical telemetry, and (2) may experience malicious alteration to the integrity of information or state, including patient data and therapy settings for when and how shocks are administered."
In other words, anyone with nasty intent who knows what he's doing can, conceivably, manipulate the settings on another person's pacemaker -- including a pacemaker implanted in a public figure, for example -- and deliver a potentially lethal jolt. (I'd like to see Hercule Poirot solve that murder.) But don't panic; we're not living in The Matrix just yet. The experiments were conducted in a lab setting, with the disrupting signal placed just a few inches away from the ICD, so long-distance manipulation isn't a worry…today.
Then again, it's worth noting that although pacemakers work reasonably well at keeping the heart going, they address the problem after the fact. In most cases, the rhythm of the heart was lost through degradation caused by poor nutrition or disease. Installing a pacemaker does not address that problem; it merely bypasses it (all puns intended). On the other hand, it is possible to reverse many of those conditions nutritionally and thus reverse many of the associated problems. For more information, check out: Heart Problems