Man’s heart rate on pacemaker data leads to arson arrest

With our addiction to computers and cell phones, we are all dripping with data at any given moment as we interact in the world. But other than your cardiologist, who should have access to the data on your pacemaker?

Ross Compton, a 59-year-old Ohio man, was charged with aggravated arson and insurance fraud and was arraigned Tuesday in the Butler County Common Pleas Court.

What’s unusual about this case is that a new evidentiary tool was added to the police toolbox – a pacemaker and the data about heart activity that it transmits to your doctor.

Compton told police he had no motive to burn Middletown house down. In recounting the events, he stated that when he noticed fire inside the home, he packed some things in a suitcase, broke a window with his cane and threw the items outside.

When police learned that Compton had a cardiac pacemaker, they obtained a search warrant, through which they were able to learn his heart rate, pace demand and cardiac rhythms before, during and after the fire.

A cardiologist who examined the data gave his opinion that it was “highly improbable” that Compton could do all the collecting, packing and removal of items from his house as he had recounted, in the short period of time he indicated.

Although other evidence was considered, such as gasoline on his clothing and inconsistent statements Compton made, Lt. Jimmy Cunningham said, “It was one of the key pieces of evidence.”

The case raises interesting questions.  Although we are dependent on our electronics, we are increasingly accepting the notion that these devices do not ensure privacy.  An item embedded in our body as a medical device is something else entirely.

Electronic Frontier Foundation staff lawyer Stephanie Lacambra noted, “Americans shouldn’t have to make a choice between health and privacy. We as a society value our rights to maintain privacy over personal and medical information, and compelling citizens to turn over protected health data to law enforcement erodes those rights.”

It will be interesting to watch this case go through the courts to see just how far our private data can be used against us.  Will this defendant be convicted by the beating of his own heart?

[Feature Photo: Butler County PD]