We're used to the security risks posed by someone hacking into our computers, tablets, and smartphones, but what about pacemakers and other implanted medical devices? To help prevent possible murder-by-hacker, engineers at Purdue University have come up with a watch-like device that turns the human body into its own network as a way to keep personal technology private.

Since it became commonplace a little over 15 years ago, wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have been a liberating experience. These made it normal to log onto the internet without cables or wires, and also made possible things like wireless headsets, earbuds, and the smart home. It's also making very personal technologies like fitness trackers, smart watches, and advanced pacemakers, insulin pumps, robotic prosthetics, and other medical devices possible.

According to the Purdue team, this poses a potential problem. Currently, what are called body-area networks use Bluetooth technology to send and receive signals between various devices on our persons. Unfortunately, these devices transmit to a distance of up to 10 m (33 ft), which means that anyone in close proximity can intercept the signal and potentially hack into it. And while no one has done so yet, it's also theoretically possible to get into something like an advanced pacemaker and commit murder with the press of an ENTER key.

To prevent this, the Purdue team led by Shreyas Sen, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is looking at how to turn the human body into its own closed network. By using Electro-Quasistatic Human Body Communications (EQS-HBC) and the conductive properties of the body to transmit a low-frequency, carrier-less radio signal along the interface between the skin and its surroundings, the result is a signal that never transmits farther than a centimeter away from the body. This not only makes the link extremely hard to hack, it uses 100 times less energy than a regular Bluetooth connection.

At the moment, the prototype device is about the size of a very thick watch, but Sen and his team are working on how to reduce its scale to that of a dust-sized integrated circuit that can be installed in other devices. When the technology is mature, it will not only improve security, but it will also allow doctors to enable medical devices that can be reprogrammed without invasive surgery, closed-loop bioelectronic medical devices to replace drugs, and high-speed brain imaging for neuroscience applications.

"We're connecting more and more devices to the human body network from smartwatches and fitness trackers to head-mounted virtual reality displays," says Sen. "The challenge has not only been keeping this communication within the body so that no one can intercept it, but also getting higher bandwidth and less battery consumption."

The research was published in Scientific Reports.

The video below discusses the new electro-quasistatic device.

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