The heart never lies: should pacemaker data be allowed in court?

New perspectives on using medical information as evidence.
(Wikimedia CC)

It's said that our hearts hold our true intentions. That became very evident in the case of an Ohio man, who was charged with arson last week.

He had claimed that his house caught fire and he made a panicked escape.

But police got a warrant to extract the data from his pacemaker, and the pacemaker's records did not match what he claimed.

That, and the fact that he had traces of gasoline on his shoes -- among other evidence -- was enough to get charged with arson and fraud.

But the idea that something as personal as a pacemaker -- which can't be removed -- could be used for something other than heart health was disturbing to some privacy rights groups, says Rob Currie. He's the director of the Law and Technology institute at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Robert Currie (Dalhousie University)

And the fact that its data could be used to convict someone seems to some to be radically unfair, as this evidence would be impossible to gather from someone without such a device, Rob points out.

Still, he says it's not a legitimate invasion of privacy if it's used to provide evidence of a crime.

There is a long history of using medical information as evidence: "30 years ago, we never would have thought that DNA would be used in court cases, but now it's a standard practice," he says.

And as more and more people are using devices that record biometric data, it's something worth keeping in mind - that the information is being recorded, and stored.

Jennifer Stoddart (McGill University)
Former federal Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart also agrees that using pacemaker data is justified if it's providing evidence of a crime.

She's more concerned about biometric data being used without the knowledge of the subject, or being sold to data brokers and, say, insurance companies.

She suggests that, in much the same way as a car has to be proven safe before it is allowed to go on the market, that companies that build biometric wearable or implantable devices be able to demonstrate that the data is secure and won't fall into the wrong hands, and that there should be legislation to that effect.

Rob also points out that in many cases, especially with DNA, the data gleaned from personal medical devices can also be used to exonerate people. "So maybe that's another angle to look at."


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