Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Municipal Wi-Fi: Dangers in Monitoring

Municipal Wi-Fi has long been discussed as the next convenience coming to a city near you. Major cities such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to install Wi-Fi throughout their streets. Some are hoping to develop completely free internet access to all that are in the city. Others want to have low cost options for internet access. New York is attempting to convert old payphones into internet hotspots, complete with Wi-Fi, free phone calls, connection to city services, and ads. In the end, all of these versions of municipal Wi-Fi are giving more and easier access to private information to local governments. The American people recently found out just how much data the federal government and the NSA is collecting on each of its citizens. Seemingly every day, headlines detail new developments in private companies collecting, using, and selling private information of its users. While many are outraged by the violation of their privacy by everything around them, few are willing to change their practices or speak out in significant was against the actions of governments and private corporations. So when municipal Wi-Fi becomes the norm around the country, it is unlikely that the masses will see this as anything but a more convenient or cheaper way of life.

But this new development will just lead to a significant expansion in the monitoring abilities of local governments and law enforcement agencies. While access to the internet is run through private companies, there is some protection from the government. Some companies are willing to fight to protect their customers’ privacy as much as they can (mostly out of economic interest for the reputation of protecting privacy amongst citizens that actually care, but they still protect it). The fourth amendment still applies to local governments trying to access information from private companies about the activities of individuals. Even if this protection is weak in this area of law, it exists and could be strengthened, or at least gives companies the grounds to attempt to protect privacy. But if municipalities install Wi-Fi, and drive out private competition by making access to the internet free or very low cost, some of these protections vanish.

Local governments and police departments do not have the same capacity to monitor and maintain information as the federal government and the NSA does. If the municipalities control the internet, the amount of information they have immediate access to increases significantly and search warrants become concerns of the past. Private organizations may not be willing to give out the location history of a phone or internet history quickly and easily to local police. But if that information is already in the government’s possession, it could become instantaneously available for use against the individual. Upon the report of a crime, the police department could access the logs of every individual in the vicinity of the crime that was connected to municipal Wi-Fi. Even if the criminal does not have a mobile device on them or is not on the municipal Wi-Fi, the police instantly gather a list of potential witnesses, with no concerns about an illegal search and seizure. And if you happen to have the same description as a suspect and your phone was in the area, it will only take a little time for the police to find and interrogate you, even if you have nothing to do with the crime. And the mere appearance that you were involved in a crime can have a significant effect on a person’s life, if their family or co-workers see you taken into questioning by the police.

The obvious way to avoid this sort of monitoring would be to avoid connecting to municipal Wi-Fi. But the government can have the advantage of offering the internet, which could be considered a basic need in today’s world, at an incredibly low price. While there are people that are aware of the dangers of this system and would avoid municipal Wi-Fi, the majority will flock to it as they will see no difference between this and private companies offering the internet. In fact, come may trust the government more as they may not be as willing to sell your information to third parties. And those that case about privacy may still see little difference between private companies and the local government, as you are still being spied upon. The government needing to take one extra step getting the information from the private company may be seen as a minor difference, and the convenience of municipal Wi-Fi may be too much to pass up. When the masses accept the municipal Wi-Fi, it is very likely there will be a monopoly created, as the customer base for private companies will be incredibly small and the government will have a monopoly in the internet as it does in other services.

Did you check on the facts behind this conclusion? Is that what happens where there are public wifi networks?

This step from private to public control of the internet and monitoring of individuals will completely erode any fourth amendment protections. The information that all the data collected by the local governments will be so vast that it will be impossible for local police forces to abstain from using it in every case. But while the danger is present, there is time to prevent this from happening. Most of the attempts to create free public Wi-Fi have failed. Cities do not have the technology to create reliable and consistent internet connections throughout their borders for it to be a viable alternative to private companies. Small areas have been converted to free Wi-Fi, but municipalities can still be stopped before the technology catches up to their wishes. Many private companies that were going to install these systems for municipalities have dropped out, which will slow the development, but may also increase the chances that the municipalities forego private companies in the future to ensure full control over the data. Before that happens, fourth amendment protections need to be greatly strengthened and the masses must be educated.

I think the assumption that the operator of a wifi network has a better chance to conduct content monitoring than other parties depends primarily on whether people use technology that trusts all the untrusted networks they use. In general, HTTPS and similar application-layer secure protocols protect the most critical of peoples' interactions in the net from being spied on in a simple way by the operator of either a wireless or wired ISP. (You didn't think through the technical reasons why it doesn't matter from the point of view of the party moving the packets whether the last mile is wired or wireless so far as his monitoring power goes.) And if people aren't completely naive, they can use VPNs and other lower-layer network security software. I don't trust any network on which my endpoint computers (laptops, notebooks, palmtops) are located. Whether the operator of a network segment on which my computer is located is a government, a company, or a friend, that makes no difference to the technical measures I am taking to prevent any intermediate party, not just the first-hop operator, from listening effectively.

Because you haven't thought the technical part of the problem through for the reader, you are misleading her as to the real problems and their real solutions. The next draft should catch the technical analysis up with the other parts, which will have a pretty significant effect on the overall trajectory of the argument.


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r3 - 26 Jun 2015 - 20:23:35 - MarkDrake
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