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Date: Feb 19, 2021

A WLAN Router May Become Your New Security Guard A new research project involving the University of Bonn uses burglars’ own smartphones to sound the alarm

Can standard wireless computer networks (WLAN) be used to track burglars more effectively? Researchers at the University of Bonn, together with colleagues at the Osnabrück Police Department and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), believe it is possible. Their plan is to use routers to identify unauthorized intruders and trigger an alarm. The project, dubbed “WACHMANN,” will bring roughly 560,000 euros in funding to the University of Bonn as part of the “Research for Civil Security” program by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

“Burglary in apartments and other buildings has posed security problems for years,” says Klaus Albers, project coordinator for the Osnabrück Police Department. “Overall, it makes people feel less secure.” To date, there has been a dearth of technological approaches to help the police combat this threat, he says. A research project entitled WACHMANN (literally “security guard,” but also a German acronym for ‘WLAN-based recording of characteristics of mobile devices near the crime scene’) is intended to put better technological tools in the hands of both citizens and the police. 
 
Researchers are planning on using improvements to standard WLAN routers to deliver better protection against burglary. “The system can detect unauthorized intruders and trigger an alarm automatically,” says Prof. Michael Meier, who holds the IT department’s chair for IT security at the University of Bonn. The topic draws on the transdisciplinary research team for “Mathematics, Modeling and Simulation of Complex Systems,” of which Meier is a member. This is one of six research areas in which various disciplines come together — forming one of the major pillars of research at University of Excellence Bonn.
 
Mobile devices like cell phones are constantly sending out their position and identity when switched on. WACHMANN takes advantage of this behavior: a building’s WLAN routers can also detect unknown mobile devices of potential criminals. “This gives every household the chance to upgrade their WLAN router into a form of alarm system,” says Daniel Vogel, a member of Prof. Meier’s team.
 
A neighbor watering the flowers won’t trigger the alarm
 
The system detects whether the homeowner is home or away based on the presence (or absence) of his or her own mobile device. A warning is then issued — to the smartphone of the resident or directly to the police, depending on the settings — when an unknown smartphone or other device enters into the predefined monitored zone. But what about a neighbor who comes by regularly to water the flowers? Their smartphone can be classified as ‘known’ within WACHMANN, preventing an alarm from sounding. The smartphone ID of the intruder might also potentially help the police determining their flight path.
 
One important consideration is avoiding recording data from innocent citizens and neighbors. For this reason, the owner of the alarm-activated router will be given the opportunity to custom define and delimit the monitored area. “You can set how far into the zone a potential intruder’s signal must reach before it is recorded,” Meier says. Furthermore, in the event of a suspected intrusion, the smartphone ID of the potential burglar is initially stored in semi-anonymous form. A final assignment of the device to a specific person can only be made once all legal requirements, including data protection ordinances, have been satisfied. The team under Professor Franziska Boehm at the Center for Applied Jurisprudence at the KIT is responsible for ensuring that the project conforms with data privacy laws. 
 
 
Contact:
 
Prof. Michael Meier
Institute for Computer Science 4
Chair for IT Security
University of Bonn
Phone +49 (0)228 7354249
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