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Hacking Pacemakers For Murder No Longer the Perfect Crime

14 Jan

Pacemakers can be hacked but that’s not news. We’ve known that for a while.

St_Jude_Medical_pacemaker_in_hand

Newer models are even easier to hack than were the older models. Progress being what it is. Most pacemakers are interrogated and adjusted in the doctor’s office or the Pacemaker Clinic by placing a “wand” over the pacemaker and then using an attached computer to retrieve data stored inside and/or change the parameters of the pacemaker—-changing sensing, pacing thresholds and rates, that sort of thing. Many newer models allow for more remote access—-from several feet away. Think “blue tooth” for a pacemaker.

Heart-039-s-Natural-Pacemaker-2

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This more “remote” access allows for hacking to take place without direct contact with the patient. The pacemaker can be changed, even turned off, which in someone who is “pacemaker dependent” for their heartbeats can be catastrophic, even deadly. Fortunately most pacemaker recipients are NOT pacer dependent so even if the device is turned off they would still do fine. Maybe a bit weak, tired, and dizzy, but not dead from heart stoppage.

Now it seems that, though this can still be done, traces are left behind. Makes getting away with such tampering more difficult.

Guess you crime writers will have to find another way to off your characters who have pacemakers.

 
 

6 responses to “Hacking Pacemakers For Murder No Longer the Perfect Crime

  1. geraldine

    January 14, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Aw, shucks!🙂

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  2. James

    January 14, 2015 at 11:17 am

    The software, which from the sounds of it is still in development, would only alert the authorities to the fact that the pacemaker had been hacked. But unless I’m missing something in the article you linked to, It wouldn’t tell the authorities who had done the hacking. So with a little plot tweaking, the hacking of pacemakers still remains a pretty good device for use in a novel.

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    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 14, 2015 at 11:21 am

      Exactly–but when and if this goes on line investigators will at least know that it was tampered with and then would begin looking into who had the access, equipment, knowledge, etc. Good plot stuff.

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  3. Teddi Deppner

    January 14, 2015 at 2:31 pm

    James said some of what I was going to say. First, it’s not the standard yet, so there’s still some time where it could be said the victim had the old style pacemaker. Second, there might be traces that indicate tampering, but it’s still wide open for killers to hide their identity and get away with it.

    Like you said in your reply comment, it makes for good plot details. Now there’s a few more twists and turns that can be followed while the expert try to determine what hack was done, what tools could have done it, and provide some clues to the killer.

    The article you linked to said “…the software will automatically look at the logs to see if the device carried out a series of actions that suggest a lethal attack. If so, the death is deemed suspect… In addition, the team also propose a new class of implants in which data logs are protected, to prevent an attacker hiding their actions.”

    To me, even once this is the standard, there is still room for 1) a truly gifted hacker to hack the protected logs and clear evidence of tampering and 2) there to be some question about whether a series of events was natural or malicious. A clever killer might still be able to create a series of events that would hide the deliberate nature of the pacemaker’s failure (like putting the victim in a situation that would explain the failure of the pacemaker, like touching a live voltage wire or exposure to a strong magnetic field that wipes electronic data, or who knows what).

    I think it’s misleading to declare in your title and the conclusive sentence of your post that hacking a pacemaker is no longer the perfect crime. But I agree it’s a great piece of upcoming technology to highlight for crime writers. Thanks for pointing it out!

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  4. david connally

    January 15, 2015 at 7:27 am

    The new software would merely show death was murder rather than from natural causes. The equipment required to interfere with pacer settings is likely to be relatively simple. Doubt if it would reduce the number of suspects much. I have the pleasure of having a pacer. If it were turned off, my heart rate would sometimes slow to uncomfortable levels but I lived for years with that condition. The only dangerous adjustment I’m aware of would be to increase heart rate to unsustainable levels but I suspect there is a maximum built into the device. A defibrillator may have the ability to kill. Will ask my cardiologist.

    Incidentally, todays pacers are often adaptive. The pulsed heart rate “adapts” to activity, the greater the body motion it senses, the faster the paced heart rate. It is confused by vibration, will think the patient is running a 100 yard dash even if the patient is standing still. I’m not supposed to use a chain saw to avoid such confusion. Maybe some creative mind can come up with a way of fooling the pacer.

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    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      January 16, 2015 at 10:39 am

      Thanks for your response. This is all true. This method of doing someone harm is limited mostly to those who are “pacemaker dependent”—meaning that without the device their heart rates are too low for functioning and sometimes even living. These folks tend to have heart rates in the 20s down to non-existent on their own. Yes the device could be reprogrammed to overdrive and pick up the heart rate to 120 or 130 or so but even this would not likely cause death. The victim would definitely be aware and would seek help—if he/she were able of course.

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