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This Startup Wants WiFi to Be the New Burglar Alarm

Wireless signals aren't just for sending emojis.

by Jordan Pearson
Dec 1 2015, 4:51pm

The Amera. Image: Cognitive Systems

Our world is awash with wireless signals emanating from all of our devices. We can't see these radio waves, but we use their spectrum every day when we make a call, or check Facebook over WiFi.

A Canadian startup called Cognitive Systems plans on taking advantage of these ubiquitous signals to provide both home and network security with a platform called Amera. Wireless signals carry information like device IDs and location information, and Amera exploits this to track the devices in your home and scan for phony WiFi access points, should an attacker try to infiltrate any of your devices.

Wireless signals are also radio waves with physical properties—they bounce off of objects—so monitoring these slight distortions can let you know when someone has entered your house.

"Right now, in anybody's house, they're bathed in the wireless they've created," said Taj Manku, co-founder of Cognitive systems. "Essentially what it does is look at the wireless that's around—WiFi, Bluetooth, a wide range of signals even if they're modulated completely differently—and immediately identifies them."

Imagine: you set the Amera up in your home, and you and your partner register your phones, your WiFi router, and your Apple TV with the device. The device now knows what's normal for your house, and continuously scans the area for any unregistered devices, or movement disrupting the normal dispersion of wireless signals in your house. If anything is amiss while you're out, you'll get a notification on your phone.

The technology that underpins Amera isn't totally new. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers have figured out a way to form a complete picture of a person from behind a wall by analyzing the WiFi signals bouncing off them, for example. In the UK, researchers have been working on similar technology. WiFi's data-leaky nature has likewise been known for a while. What's novel is to see it all packaged into a consumer product.

Watch more from Motherboard: All the Ways to Hack Your Phone

The Amera platform is made up of four components: the Amera itself is the "hub" of the platform, and smaller devices called Fyreflys that can be set up throughout the home to extend Amera's detection capabilities. Cognitive System's cloud platform, Myst, processes the data. Finally, the Amera mobile app lets you receive notifications about who's in your house.

If you're wondering how the this thing would work in an apartment building, where your WiFi network might overlap with the access point "Beer_cheese420" next door, Manku said that Amera will be able to filter out the noise based on signal strength. For motion, it's up to the user.

"If it's an install by somebody else, then the size of that 'bubble' is set by them, or by the user if they're self-installing it," Manku explained. "But that bubble determines where you're detecting, you can set your sensitivity and where you want that motion to be covered."

Cognitive Systems was founded by veterans in the device hardware scene. Manku founded chip manufacturer Sirific, a company that was acquired by Icera, which was in turn bought by Nvidia for $367 million three years later. Hugh Hind and Oleksiy Kravets, Manku's two co-founders, were both senior developers at BlackBerry for a number of years. Hind, for his part, rose through the ranks to become BlackBerry's vice president of wireless technologies, a position he held for 12 years. Both Hind and Manku were also formerly professors at the University of Waterloo.

Basically, they seem to know their shit. Though Amera's release date hasn't been set, Cognitive Systems hopes to release it some time in 2016.