The Privacy Costs of Municipal Wi-Fi

Chris Hoofnagle points to a very important article in the Nation by Jeff Chester discussing the privacy costs of many of the proposals for municipal wi-fi, including Google’s plan for San Francisco. The benefits of muni-wi-fi are great, but proposals for some of the nation’s largest cities come with hidden strings attached that compromise the user privacy:

Unless municipal leaders object, citizens and visitors will be subjected to intensive data-mining of their web searches, e-mail messages and other online activities are tracked, profiled and targeted. The inevitable consequences are an erosion of online privacy, potential new threats of surveillance by law enforcement agencies and private parties, and the growing commercialization of culture.Consider the application submitted to the City of San Francisco in February by search giant Google and its partner, the Internet service provider Earthlink. One of six Wi-Fi bids being considered by the City of San Francisco, the Google/Earthlink plan has attracted the most attention. Under this proposal, Google would provide a free but relatively low-speed Internet service available throughout the city (Earthlink would operate a higher-speed service on the same system charging users $20 a month). The costs of operating the “free” service would be offset by Google’s plans to use the network to promote its interactive advertising services.

Everyone who uses the Google network would first be directed to a portal page, where they would be offered an array of what Google terms “personalized consumer products.” Through those products and other technologies, Google plans, according to its proposal, to “target advertisements to specific geographical locations and to user interests.”

What this means is that Google and Earthlink plan to use online files (known as cookies) and other data-collection techniques to profile users and deliver precise, personalized advertising as they surf the Internet. (Earthlink is working with the interactive ad company DoubleClick, which collects and analyzes enormous amounts of information online to engage in individual interactive ad targeting.)

It seems that many of these muni-wi-fi proposals will build an online surveillance infrastructure in order to support the emerging mobile marketing ecosystem, where wherever we roam, a ubiquitous online environment will follow us with ads and information dovetailed to our interests and our geographic location. More and more, what I call our “spheres of mobility” are coming under siege of widespread and increasingly everyday surveillance. (I will talk more about this soon as my dissertation proposal nears completion.)

1 comment

  1. Pingback: Privacy Digest: Privacy News (Civil Rights, Encryption, Free Speech, Cryptography)

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