Makers of Device That Can 'See' Through Walls Are Worried About Who Will Use It

It could save a life or spy on innocents, researchers say.

Paul Virilio, a philosopher of technology, once wrote that to invent the car is to invent the car crash. Every new technology is also a disaster waiting to happen. You have to be prepared.

The MIT scientists behind a new device that uses radio waves and complex algorithms to "see" people's silhouettes through walls and track their movements know this all too well. Their technology is meant to be used in health care, they say, and they've founded a startup that will use the tech to detect if an elderly person falls in their home and alert family members with an app.

Still, the researchers told me that they realize that a device capable of such detailed surveillance in someone's home might be a tantalizing tool for hackers or security agencies such as the NSA to tap into while users are unaware.

"From our perspective any technology will have many uses. However there are particular applications that are more useful and beneficial to society," said Dr. Dina Katabi, one of the authors of a paper describing the device, "Cell phones open up questions of surveillance by a variety of agencies, but the basic use of cellphones is beneficial—communication. The way we perceive this is that the this technology can benefit people in health care."

The device, called RF-Capture, was developed by a team of researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). It works by sending out radio waves, much like a WiFi router, and measuring the reflections after they bounce off of a human body in the next room. The waves only hit certain parts of the body at a time—which results in snapshots of information that form an incomplete picture—so the system uses an algorithm to stitch together the measurements and fit them into a model of a human silhouette.

The resulting images might look a lot like what you're probably used to seeing from thermal imaging, but RF-Capture is different because infrared doesn't pass through walls or glass. And while thermal imaging is useful in the outdoors, it's not much help when you're trying to see what's going on behind a closed door during a tense hostage situation, for example.

"In hostage situations, you might want to understand how people are moving inside, and understand who the victim and hostage-taker is," said Fadel Adib, the paper's lead author. "This can be very important in law enforcement. It's true that there are privacy concerns, but even in terms of surveillance, there are beneficial applications."

Hopefully, if their device ever makes it into the hands of law enforcement, the cops will need a warrant to use it like other surveillance tech such as Stingray cell phone interceptors.

RF-Capture is still a year away from commercialization, Katabi said, but units will hopefully start shipping later in 2016. The idea of having a device that can see through walls and watch your movements at all times might be a little unsettling from a privacy standpoint, but Katabi and Adib tell me they're already preparing for the worst.