Municipal WiFi is Coming, and Why Privacy Advocates Should Care

Graham Longford, a postdoc at the Community Wireless Infrastructure Research Project (CWIRP) at the University of Toronto, has contributed a nice essay on the privacy considerations of municipal wi-fi over at the On the Identity Trail blog. Graham notes many of the concerns with Google’s wi-fi plans in San Francisco I’ve expressed before, but also focuses on the city of Toronto’s plan to allow a subsidiary of municipally-owned Toronto Hydro Corporation to build their network, noting too that this subsidiary has “made it very clear that the main purpose of the system is to maximize revenue for its parent company.” That means data mining.

Graham also proposes a privacy-protecting “Gold Standard” that any municipal wi-fi system should follow:

  • allow access without “signing in”; sign-in procedures often require personal information that enables tracking;
  • offer a level of access that is free, since fee-based systems (e.g. subscription services) enable the identification of users through credit card or bank account information, unless provision for cash payment is made; and,
  • forego offering targeted advertising and other customized electronic services based on user identity, location or surfing behaviour; such services may be offered, but on an “opt-in” basis requiring the user’s explicit consent.

Good suggestions. While I haven’t reviewed all the details, I have noticed that the proposed muni wi-fi in my old hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will provide citizens free access to 60 Web sites, run by government entities or non-profit agencies (any other sites will require a subscription). A good first step.

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