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Privacy in Motion

From left to right: MIT PhD students Fadel Adib and Mingmin Zhao with Professor Dina Katabi (Photo courtesy of Jason Dorfman). From left to right: MIT PhD students Fadel Adib and Mingmin Zhao with Professor Dina Katabi (Photo courtesy of Jason Dorfman).

The technological advancements of the past twenty years has undoubtedly created a dependency on the very technology that it has produced. As a result, further research of new methods for utilizing old components has been fostered, encouraging the creation of new products. Most notably, researchers at both Peking University and MIT have discovered new ways of analyzing data collected between Wi-Fi signals.

In analyzing the information delivered between two Wi-Fi sources, human movement has been discovered to be accurately detected. This ability of a device to recognize the location of objects around itself, a technological breakthrough, could revolutionize the way baby monitors or security devices are made – but holds far less marketable implications for user privacy.

It is no secret that the privacy people were once privileged enough to experience is now as outdated as the technology that once offered it. Even so, this resigned acceptance fails to assuage the overwhelmingly negative opinion towards government collection of personal information. An entity with access to received data between the Wi-Fi routers now holds an immense amount of power, never before fully realized; power which could end up in the hands of anyone with the right knowledge of the system, including a federal agency, if a court order were to be made against the provider.

Even so, despite threats to privacy, there are compelling reasons to still consider utilizing wireless data technology. Those working on the project at MIT have found an even more practical use: monitoring breathing and heart rate. This new characteristic, with the ability to collect information even from individuals on the other side of a wall, can be interpreted a number of different ways.

“Just by knowing how people breathe and how their hearts beat in different emotional states, we can look at a random person’s heartbeat and reliably detect their emotions,” said MIT student Mingmin Zhao, one of the cowriters of the published paper on the topic.

Preexisting knowledge of emotions in relation to breathing and heart rate has made it simple for the interpreters of this new information to read the emotions of those in the signal with incredible accuracy, which can vastly assist those working in the medical field.

“This opens up the possibility of learning more about conditions like arrhythmia, and potentially exploring other medical applications that we haven’t even thought of yet,” said the other student co-author of the paper, Fadel Adib.

The advantages to having this kind of technology within hospitals and clinics around the world could prove incredibly beneficial to the health of those being treated. There is even potential for diagnosing illnesses which impact the mood of a patient, such as depression and other mental health disorders which inhibit the happiness.

It is a long road ahead to apply these findings to the medical and surveillance field – but with time, the question will undoubtedly arise as to whether the benefits of wireless data technology outweigh the very real threat to privacy.

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Privacy in Motion