(Inside Science TV) -- When former vice president Dick Cheney had a pacemaker implanted for his heart problems in 2007, one possible complication was that someone could "hack" into his pacemaker and kill him. It made headline news at the time and was a legitimate national security issue.
Scientists say it could happen. Hackers could shock and even kill someone wearing an implanted heart device. Finding a way to protect patients is tricky.
Farinaz Koushanfar, an electrical and computer engineer at Rice University in Houston said, “You could hack into the device…like people hack into computers, hack into iPhones, hack into electronics every day.”
“These devices are not protected by any passcodes or any traditional passwords,” said Farshad Raissi, a physiologist and cardiologist at University of Texas-Houston and Hermann Memorial Hospital in Houston.
That’s because doctors often need access to the data the devices store during an emergency. Now, electrical and computer engineers have found a way to protect pacemakers and defibrillators using the patient’s own heartbeat.
“We are using their heart as a random number generator,” said Masoud Rostami, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice University.
When a doctor touches the patient with a device called a programmer, it picks up a signature from the patient’s heart. The patient’s pacemaker and programmer device compare details. If the signals match, access is granted.
“So, we get a shared secret channel between us,” explained Koushanfar.
The software uses very little battery power and current patients don’t require a new device for it to work – good news for patients like Marshall Morris who recently had his pacemaker and defibrillator re-implanted.
“I was proud of our 10-year warranty on our car…[the pacemaker] should hold up about the same length of time, so that’s very good,” said Morris.
The researchers say their technology could also be used on other devices such as insulin pumps and brain implants.