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Keeping Pace With Pacemakers

A research team at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is developing an RFID system to protect heart patients.
By Beth Bacheldor
Dec 01, 2008—Millions of people are walking around with implantable pacemakers that keep their hearts beating normally. They also need to visit their cardiologists regularly to ensure the devices are programmed and operating correctly. Now researchers are developing next-generation pacemakers that can be checked over the Internet, reducing trips to the doctor's office. But such online checks could make the devices vulnerable to hacking.

Kevin E. Fu, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is on the case. He and a team of researchers received a three-year, $449,000 National Science Foundation grant to improve security in future implantable pacemakers. Their research will address two challenges: sharing data over the Internet, and the use of wirelessly programmable implants.

The design for the prototype pacemaker calls for an embedded sensor and passive RFID chip, which won't drain energy from the device's battery.

Fu and his team are designing a prototype pacemaker embedded with a sensor and passive RFID chip to monitor for hacks. If security were breached, an actuator integrated in the pacemaker would sound an alarm to alert the heart patient.

The team chose passive RFID because it doesn't drain energy from the pacemaker's battery; if the battery needed to be replaced, the patient would have to undergo invasive surgery. Passive RFID, Fu says, lets the device "dedicate the battery entirely to life-saving electrical therapies rather than secondary aspects such as security."

Fu says his research comes at a critical time. "We're getting in early enough to influence the design and provide cyber trust," he says. "With medical devices, we don't have the luxury to fix security after the fact."
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