FDA wants protection against pacemaker hacking

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(KTVI)-- What sounds like science fiction, is now being taken seriously by the federal government.  Regulators want to protect you from cyber threats on your body.

An episode of Showtime's Homeland shows a terrorist hack the Vice-President`s pacemaker.  The Vice-President then dies on the show, after his pacemaker speeds up his heartbeat.  A woman watching the episode, called her son, Scott Ferreira, to ask if it's possible.  Dr. Ferreira is a Cardiac Electrophysiologist with SLU.

Ferreira told us, "I thought it was very unrealistic when I first heard of it. Subsequently I`ve looked into it a little bit.  There is some truth to it.  There`s some feasibility to it, but there were a lot of things that were not exact in the way the story was put together."

Ferreira said a cyber threat is possible because most newer pacemakers communicate wirelessly.

He said, "It`s a very local connection. So it`s similar to like a portable computer or your iPad works over a wireless network in your house.'

The wireless switch on the pacemaker is typically 'off' to protect battery life. In order to turn it on, you have to get right next to it, using a device and then have a access to a computer to change the pacemaker's settings.

Despite the low risk, the FDA is asking manufacturers and hospitals to "prevent unauthorized access" after researchers reported "password vulnerability affecting roughly 300 (types of) medical devices across approximately 40 vendors."  These vulnerabilities are not comparable to the terrorist act on the fictional episode of Homeland, but researchers are concerned "access could allow critical settings... to be modified."

Dr. Ferreira said the appropriate response will be a balancing act.  He explained, "You don`t want to do something that`s overly aggressive with security threats, if you`re going to take away from the ability for the device to do what it`s supposed to and last a long time."

Ferreira doesn`t want people to be scared by this remote possibility, because in reality, the newest technology is saving people.  Improving pacemakers and better medical devices are saving lives.

Ferreira also said it would take an extraordinarily bright person with a lot of time to hack a pacemaker.  We're not talking about your average person using a special device. It's so complicated, Dr. Ferreira doesn't believe it's a viable threat. And though the FDA has identified vulnerabilities, it's reported no case of anyone getting hurt.

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