"Homeland" episode on hacking defibrillators sparks concern


by JIM BERGAMO / KVUE News and photojournalist DOUG NAUGLE

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Posted on February 26, 2013 at 6:49 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 26 at 7:01 PM

AUSTIN -- A recent episode of a fictional, cable television series sparked debate and even some controversy in the medical community over the security of certain wireless medical devices, especially those that may be implanted in the body.

The particular episode of the Showtime series "Homeland" sent shock waves, not only through the body of the man playing the vice president of the United States, but through the real life technical and medical communities as well. The show portrays foreign and domestic terrorists working together to secure the serial number of the VP's defibrillator. They then use it to remotely send a giant surge of electricity into his heart, resulting in a fatal heart attack.

"In honesty, it is still more fiction," said Kristopher Heinzman, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Seton Heart Institute.

Heinzman says while these medical devices have the ability to communicate wirelessly, that communication is still fairly limited.

"The process that somebody would have to go through to make this even remotely possible is very extensive at this point," said Heinzman.

You'll notice Heinzman never said it was impossible. That's why he says the FDA and the tech companies that make these devices, while looking for ways to make them more convenient for patients, also realize with that convenience comes greater concerns about high tech security.

"As this progresses it's going to be important to pay attention to all of this wireless technology to make sure there aren't leaks in that security moving forward," said Heinzman
To combat congestive heart failure, 69-year-old John Murphy of South Austin had his defibrillator implanted about a year ago.

"The peace of mind involved there just cannot be described," said Murphy.

Murphy says that peace of mind outweighs the negatives associated with any futuristic security concerns over hacking his defibrillator.

"There's probably reasons to be concerned, but I'm not going to do it," he said.

Heinzman says it's important for doctors to talk to their patients about the benefits and disadvantages of any medical devices they're considering. To that end, Heinzman says chances that that defibrillator will treat a dangerous arrhythmia and potentially change a patient's life for the better is as high as 25 percent. Conversely the chances of them having any bad experience from a hacking or any type of wireless invasion of their device is so remote that he says it doesn't even compare to that possible benefit.