The hack-able body: Are device makers doing enough to shield patients from hackers?

March 7, 2012 by Arezu Sarvestani

The threat that the fusion of humans and medical machines may leave patients vulnerable to the hackers and bugs of the digital world is beginning to resonate with device makers.

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Karen Sandler was 31 years old, working at a non-profit organization providing free legal help to computer programmers, when she was diagnosed with an enlarged heart and informed that she'd need a machine to help keep her alive.

Her mother accompanied her the day a doctor recommended that Sandler undergo surgery to implant a medical device into her chest. He handed Sandler a pager-sized machine called a cardioverter defibrillator – a miniature, implantable equivalent of having EMTs follow her around all day with defibrillator paddles should her heart stop.

The device was a round, metal compartment housing a tiny computer, an electrical pulse generator and a battery. Connected to her heart with metal wires, the device would monitor her heart rate and deliver an electrical pulse to shock it back to a normal rhythm should a mild burst of activity, such as hurrying across a street or running to catch a bus, over-exert her. Even as a self-professed "technology warrior," the prospect of becoming part machine caught Sandler off guard. Computers crash, run out of power and succumb to hackers. Would becoming a "cyborg" ultimately count as an affliction or an upgrade? And could she really trust a machine with her life?

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Sandler grew up around machines and the programs that run them. Her father was a computer programmer; she taught her first basic computer class at summer camp when she was 16. She received a bachelor's degree in engineering from the Cooper Union before pursuing a law degree from Columbia University, where she co-founded the Columbia Science & Technology Law Review. It was while working for the Software Freedom Law Center, an organization offering legal help to computer programmers working on open-source software projects, that she learned of her condition.

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