(Tom Leonard) When the acclaimed television drama series Homeland climaxed with a devious plot by terrorists to kill America’s vice-president by hacking into his electronic pacemaker, critics scoffed at the ludicrousness of the idea.
But the outrageous storyline was thought credible by many in the world of computer security.
Among those was the New Zealand-born computer hacker Barnaby Jack.
The 35-year-old — who, unlike many in the business, used his skills ‘ethically’ — had spent his career demonstrating the dangers posed by unscrupulous hackers combined with computer manufacturers’ failure to install proper safety devices on equipment.
Mr Jack spent his career demonstrating the dangers posed by unscrupulous hackers combined with computer manufacturers¿ failure to install proper safety devices on equipment
Jack thought it highly plausible that a terrorist could hack into someone’s pacemaker and speed up their heartbeat until it killed them.
He also believed it was possible to infect the pacemaker companies’ servers with a bug that would spread through their systems like a virus.
Jack, who had been obsessed with computers since childhood, emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 21 and joined a firm specializing in computer security issues.
In recent years, he had developed a specific interest in what is known as ‘embedded’ technology, the hardware and software built into everyday objects such as cars, banking systems, home appliances and medical devices.
He was preparing to demonstrate his work two days ago at a major computer-hacking convention in Las Vegas.
In an address to the Black Hat convention titled ‘Implantable medical devices: hacking humans’, Jack was due to show an audience of hackers and cyber security experts at Caesar’s Palace how he could hack into devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators.
He planned to show how, using a wireless transmitter, he could trigger a deadly power surge and kill someone from up to 50ft away.
A pacemaker is a small battery-powered device implanted in the chest, which regulates the beating of the heart by sending regular electrical pulses to the heart muscles. Modern versions are controlled from small external computers.
Famous pacemaker wearers include Sir Elton John, Sir David Attenborough, former U.S.
vice-president Dick Cheney and former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
More than 500,000 have been fitted to patients in Britain, but it was in the U.S. — where nearly five million people use pacemakers and defibrillators — that Jack’s stunt was regarded as a potentially seismic revelation.
However, he was never to give the demonstration. A week beforehand, Jack was found dead in his flat in the San Francisco neighbourhood of Nob Hill. His body was believed to have been found by his girlfriend, Layne Cross, a 31-year-old model. According to friends, he was found dead in bed.
To say his sudden death remains shrouded in mystery is putting it mildly.
Predictably, for someone who worked in such a shadowy world, there have been countless theories about how he was killed. Hackers are a suspicious bunch who have become even more paranoid since the U.S government’s efforts to silence whistleblowers such as ex-soldier Bradley Manning (who faces jail for leaking secret government cables to WikiLeaks).
The absence of even the most basic details about Barnaby Jack’s untimely death has ignited a firestorm of speculation that foul play could be involved.
This has been fuelled by the refusal of the coroner’s office to discuss the case other than to say that the autopsy results may not be available for ‘weeks, possibly months’.
Indeed, a source at the local police station admitted that this silence was puzzling.
Jack’s former work colleagues at IOActive, which has headquarters in Seattle and London, said they knew of no medical condition that could have killed him.
Officially, San Francisco police will say only they have passed the case to the local coroner’s office — an indication, said a spokesman, that it had found no evidence of ‘foul play’.
But on Twitter and the news-sharing site Reddit, commenters suspect the involvement of the U.S. government and the CIA.
Some have suggested that government officials wanted to silence Jack before he could reveal how America’s enemies could hack into devices such as pacemakers.
Perhaps, a poster on Reddit suggested, the American authorities wanted to harness the skills themselves and use them on their enemies and ‘didn’t want the competition’.
There have been other, even more outlandish, suggestions — such as that Jack is not actually dead but has been spirited away by the U.S. government to work on secret research projects.
Others have linked the tragedy with the recent death of Michael Hastings, a young American journalist whose revelations about U.S. general Stanley McChrystal’s contempt for White House officials forced his resignation as Nato chief in Afghanistan.
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