Surgically Implanted Bluetooth Devices Don’t Help Would-Be Exam Cheats

A pair of would-be exam cheats were caught red-handed at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College in Indore, India, as they tried to use Bluetooth devices surgically implanted in their ears for a bit of unauthorised exam-time help.

It’s a news story that’s flashed around the world and like most readers we’re somewhat fascinated by the lengths to which they seem to have been prepared to go, but it’s left us with a few unanswered questions. The news reports all have no information about the devices used, and beyond the sensationalism of the story we’re left wondering what the practicalities might be.

Implanting anything is a risky and painful business, and while we’ve seen Bluetooth headphones and headsets of all shapes and sizes it’s hardly as though they’re readily available in a medically safe and sterile product. Either there’s a substantial rat to be smelled, or the device in question differs slightly from what the headlines would lead us to expect.

Miniature Bluetooth headphones were all the rage in the last decade, so now the pages of Amazon and AliExpress are bulging with high-tech devices to stuff in your ear canals. They’re tiny, but it’s worth thinking for a minute what tiny means in this context. A while back we took a look at cheap Chinese ear cameras as microscopes, and pulling out the review model for a quick measure we find that the business end which is a snug fit in an ear canal is 5.5 mm wide. It’s small in the scheme of USB cameras, but in the context of subcutaneous implants it’s huge. There are members of our community with an interest in embedable RFID tags, by contrast these tags are a fraction of a millimetre in diameter and are suitable for implantation using a hypodermic syringe.

Thus we are ready to smell a rat rather than take at face value the headline’s assertion that a Bluetooth earpiece was embedded complete with LiPo battery and enclosure. We think that anyone with one of those shoved under their skin would be not an effective exam candidate, suffering as they would be from significant pain and probably a nasty infection.

We are guessing that a far more likely source of this story is an implant that doesn’t involve any Bluetooth at all. A bone conduction hearing aid implant is a small magnetic device that is attached to the bone behind the ear, which vibrates in response to a magnetic field and transmits the resulting sound to the receptors of the inner ear via the bone itself. A search on miniature in-ear devices reveals a category of so-called “spy” products in which an induction coil is worn around the neck with a pocket amplifier, and we’re guessing that one of this type of devices might be the culprit. This leaves us significantly curious as to how the crafty pair were rumbled; did they blast Barry Manilow through a large induction coil, we wonder?

If you’re someone with expertise in these matters, perhaps even a user of an inductive hearing aid implant, we would like to hear your views in the comments.

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35 thoughts on “Surgically Implanted Bluetooth Devices Don’t Help Would-Be Exam Cheats

  1. Cochlear implants bypass the existingearas we know it. But it’s not standalone. You have to couple from the outside, apparently a hearing aid like device.

    Even hearng aids don’t do bluetooth, or maybe not all. Tye bluetooth receiver is separate, coupled to the aid via a loop, I think at 13MHz

      1. I just found a hearing aid with BT (Signia Pure Charge&Go 3X) for 1,450USD in USA, the same model in Poland costs ~1,166USD. Is this too much? Maybe. But try designing miniature device that has to work with very limited power, perform complex DSP processing, support BT and fit nicely and snugly behind the ear. Not an easy task.

        1. That’s the manufacturer cost. Once you factor in the US health care system and its additional costs you’re easily looking at $3k – $5k per ear. I’ve helped my wifes grandmother navigate her insurance to get hearing aids and after being passed around and paying for multiple “diagnoses” we decided on a notebook and pencil at her choice. The cost was unpayable on her fixed income.

          1. But bluetooth isn’t a “neccessity”, which is why you can get hearing aids that need an external box for bluetooth.

            The government here was quite happy to pay for what seems kike a fairly good hearing aid, and the external bluetoooth box, but I don’t think one with bkuetooth built in was an option.

            And apparently they’ll pay for cochlear implants.

          2. If I needed a hearing aid in my country, which is Poland, I would pay for it, but all diagnostics and configuration is free, if I waited for my visit with the specialist for few weeks to months (depending on region). I could pay for private consultation anything from 100 to 250PLN, which is ~25-70USD to get the hearing test and diagnostics. Configuration would be for free at the store. And most of those stores in bigger cities have a specialist on the staff.
            Also if I needed a hearing aid for one of my kids, National Health Fund would refund about half of its price.

            I’ve never understood why american healthcare is the way it is. It works efficiently, but from my point of view everything costs 4-10 times more than it should. And (according to movies I watched as a kid) if you are a kid with leukemia in USA, you’re screwed, because big, evil insurance company won’t cover your treatment.

    1. Cochlear implants have a long learning curve and are very expensive. Unless these students had profound hearing loss and already had the implants, no. Bluetooth hearing aids exist now. Expensive. Hearing aids with proprietary RF links are more likely. They are used to couple information/sound from one ear to the other. Change volume on one ear and the other changes. Apply noise reduction on one ear and the other follows. Most likely of all is simply a bluetooth ear bud and a hidden cell phone.

    2. Ummm, my hearing aids are bluetooth enabled and can listen to lots of BLE devices includingy phone. Grow your hair over your ears and you’ve solved most of the problem. Start the call before you enter the exam room. Hide the phone. Rock N Roll.

    1. Reading the source article I’m going to say this is a hindi-english translation issue, combined with re-reporting truncation. The article says “ One of the students had hidden a small device with SIM in his vest, which was being used as a mobile phone. Another student was found with a normal mobile on which phone calls were being made during the examination”.

      The Bluetooth device was apparently an earpiece

      Other Indian sources have more detail “an ENT surgeon put a skin-colored Bluetooth micro device in his ear” and the other student “told university authorities it had not been surgically inserted and could be removed with a needle.”

      So, still technically interesting, but doesn’t look like any surgery was involved

  2. There is solution. You can buy invisible bluetooth headphones. They work in a way that You put tiny neodymium magnet in your ear canal and then have big battery operated coil around your neck. Under the shirt. Coil is powerful enough to make the magnet vibrate and produce sound in your ear. After exam you put steel pin to your ear to remove the magnet.

  3. From the article, “We think these microphones were surgically fitted in the ears of both the students.” I think “We think” is the key part, they don’t know for sure, I’d say it was a combination of the school staff not really knowing and maybe some mistranslation, personally I think they just modified some BT device to be as small as possible and had someone put them as deeply in their ear canals as they could.

  4. I would guess that these are just regular Bluetooth hearing aids as the article is translated first off. Also towards they beginning they are saying they were deftly/cleverly placed in the ear. That is extremely different than having a surgically implanted device. Also in the translation it says we think these microphones were surgically fitted. wouldn’t it need to be a speaker in the ear and not a microphone? I could be wrong but i’m guessing this isn’t as cool of James bond scifi implant as it being made out, and more of an off the shelf ali express ITC hearing aid

  5. There was a product pitch in Shark Tank, the American version of the popular business investment show, that was a Bluetooth implant. The business was called Ionic Ear, although it was roundly panned by the ‘Sharks’. A quick google suggests they’ve not had success since the show either.

  6. I swear I read years ago about a hacker going to east Asia to get a Bluetooth implant installed but severing the connections after they found out in phoned home. I can’t for the life of me find the article now though.

  7. Maybe someone was watching too much tv. In 1972 there was “Search” where the agents had implanted receivers. I don’t know how they talked back.

    NCIS:LA routinely has ear pieces that also transmit. I’m not sure abiut the other NCISs.

    Of course, they never explain how such small devices have such great range. And no mention if repeaters.

    1. And “Fortune Hunter” in the mid 90s. The hero had these magic contact lenses that transmitted video and audio to his sidekick, who would give him advice to an earpiece… kind of like a meat-based Alexa :-) It was a fun show, but probably wouldn’t impress the kids today :-)

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