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Implanted Pacemaker seen on a frontal chest x-ray.
Implanted Pacemaker seen on a frontal chest x-ray. Cavallini James — BSIP/Getty Images

How a Pacemaker Led Police To Accuse Someone With Arson

Feb 07, 2017

A cardiac pacemaker played a key role in police charging a man for arson and insurance fraud.

Ross Compton appeared in an Ohio court on Tuesday to face two felony charges of aggravated arson and insurance fraud after a fire at his home on Sept. 19. Police said Compton, who has told local news outlets that he is innocent, uses a pacemaker, which police mined for data to help determine whether he took items from the home and tossed them out a window during the fire, as he's claimed. A cardiologist who reviewed his heart rate and cardiac rhythms for signs of exertion when he raced to save his belongings, has said that his version of events during the fire are "highly improbable," according to the Associated Press.

Soon after his house caught fire, Compton called 911 and said that he "grabbed a bunch of stuff, threw it out the window," according to local news outlet WLWT5. He said that he packed suitcases filled with items, broke his bedroom window, and threw the suitcases safely outside. Although police reportedly found evidence of gasoline on Compton's clothing and shoes, the pacemaker data was critical to the investigation.

Throwing the items out the window suggests he had the physical ability to collect items, place them in a suitcase, and throw them out the window—all while worrying about a fire. While Compton says it's possible, the doctor's conclusion to the contrary suggests his scramble during the fire did not happen the way he said, if at all.

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"It was one of the key pieces of evidence that allowed us to charge him," Lt. Jimmy Cunningham told WLWT5 in an interview last month. Police argued that his condition, coupled with the pacemaker data, suggests his description of what happened is false.

Compton's case illustrates the growing importance of data from medical devices. Companies, including some technology titans like Apple (aapl) and Google (googl), are investing heavily in health tech. The goal is to use medical devices to share more information with doctors in an effort to improve peoples' health and ultimately save lives. It's a balancing act, however, since the healthcare industry is required to protect patient privacy.

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In a statement to Fortune on Tuesday, Stephanie Lacambra, criminal defense staff attorney at digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Compton's case could have an impact on healthcare, privacy, and the growing number of "smart" devices that can share historical and real-time data with doctors.

"EFF is concerned that as technology advances, the erosion of individual privacy in personally identifiable health information increases," Lacambra said. "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."

In his interview with WLWT5, Compton was also critical of the investigation. He called the investigation "utterly insane" and added that he has "no motive whatsoever" to commit arson.

Compton is scheduled back in court later this month. Whether the heart data will come up in trial is unknown.

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