Nearly a half million pacemakers could get hacked

The FDA has authorized a voluntary recall of 465,000 pacemakers (y'know, the things that keep your heart beating) because they need a software update to protect from hacking.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
2 min read

An implanted pacemaker seen on an x-ray.

Getty Images

Sometimes life imitates art. In this case, a storyline from a hit spy show is leaping off the screen and could potentially turn deadly.

The FDA sent notice Tuesday that nearly half a million pacemakers from the health company Abbott (formerly St. Jude Medical) are vulnerable to being hacked and need a software update to protect them. These devices are typically implanted under the skin in the chest area, with wires that go into the heart to help keep it pumping at a healthy rate.

If this sounds a little familiar, that might be because it was a plot line in "Homeland," the spy show from Showtime (which, like CNET, is owned by CBS). In the aptly named episode "Broken Hearts," terrorists plot to use wireless communications to hack into the vice president's pacemaker and, well, you can guess the rest. People at the time may have scoffed at the premise, but former Vice President Dick Cheney said in 2013 that the threat was real enough that an assessment of his own heart device had been made.

Fortunately, the update for the Abbott pacemakers can be done in about three minutes, according to a handout

Both the FDA and Abbott said there had been no known reports of the pacemakers being hacked so far. That said, the notice says that increasing use of wireless technology in medical devices potentially leaves us at risk, but it "can also often offer safer, more efficient, convenient, and timely health care delivery."

The devices affected include the Accent, Anthem, Accent MRI, Accent ST, Assurity and Allure.

First published August 30, 12:47 p.m. PT.
Update, August 31 at 1:45 p.m.: Adds additional comment from the FDA and Abbott.