Insights & Analyses

Ticker trouble: Pacemaker’s biometric data will be used as evidence in trial

July 13, 2017

A man’s lifesaving pacemaker could ultimately be his downfall in court, after a judge ruled that identifying data from the heart-assisting technology can be used as evidence against him in an ongoing arson case.

Ross Compton of Middletown, Ohio, was indicted for arson thanks, in part, to data police obtained from his pacemaker, via a court-issued warrant. Now that same data will be used in his trial, according to the Journal-News, after the judge presiding over the case ruled it can be presented by the prosecution.

The trial will mark the first-known time that biometric data from a user’s heart will be presented as evidence. Prosecutors believe that the information stored on the pacemaker shows that the defendant’s alibi is false.

Compton told investigators that the fire at his home started while he was asleep, and after he awoke to the blaze, he packed some belongings and broke out of his bedroom window. But a cardiologist reviewed Compton’s pacemaker data, and determined that it is “highly improbable” that someone in his condition could allegedly accomplish all of that in such a short period of time.

Identifying data from the pacemaker includes the man’s heart rate, pacer demand, and cardiac rhythms. Information about his heart activity was obtained from before, during, and after the fire occurred in September of 2016, resulting in $400,000 in damages.

Prosecutors have charged Compton with aggravated arson and insurance fraud, and the trial is set to start on Dec. 4.

The case touches on a number of issues central to identity, not the least of which is the proliferation of biometrics as an identifying factor not only for security purposes, but also as potential evidence of a user’s whereabouts or even physical activities.

It also highlights the need for security with connected devices related to health data and the Internet of Things, as doctors and hospitals turn to advanced technology and communications to obtain and share data for diagnoses and research. Concerns about security have led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to partner IBM to help protect medical data transfers with blockchain.

But nefarious exploits of medical devices and corresponding data could have more immediate and grave results as well.

Early this year, the FDA issued a warning stating that certain radio frequency-enabled pacemakers could be hacked, with potentially fatal results for the patient.

Going forward, the balance of convenience, ease of use, and life saving capabilities for medical devices and the Internet of Things will be constantly weighed against security concerns and their possible ramifications. Because the collecting and storing of any deeply personal data is enough to get a security advocate’s heart rate up.