Is Public Access WiFi Making Police Monitoring Possible?

free-wifi-imageIn New York City, the city is creating what will soon be the largest and fastest free Wi-Fi internet network in the country. The big question about this new network concerns whether or not this free internet service is going to put the privacy of those who use it, especially those in the low-income bracket, at risk.

Why Free Wi-Fi?
According to the latest research, four out of five homes in developed countries now have access to a home internet connection. However, here in the U.S., this simple service is often out of reach of many homes. Records show that of homes with an annual income of less than $20,000, less than 50% have some form of broadband internet connection simply because it is too expensive.

In New York City, this situation has led to the development of the LinkNYC program launched in February of 2016 with the sole intent of making free Wi-Fi accessible to the millions of people who choose to call NYC their home. While NYC is certainly not the only city in the U.S. to offer free Wi-Fi, LinkNYC is intended to become the most widespread and fastest free municipal Wi-Fi service in the country. The city plans to have complete citywide coverage within the next 10 years.

Privacy Concerns with Free Public Access Wi-Fi
In a recent letter sent to the mayor of New York by the American Civil Liberties Union, concerns regarding the privacy of individuals, especially those in the lower income bracket who are more likely to take advantage of this free internet service, were raised. According to the letter, the LinkNYC privacy policy states that users who utilize this system agree to share information about the device they are using, how they interact with web pages they visit, and their browsing and search history. The policy also states that this information will be retained for up to 1 year after the last time a person logs in.

LinkNYC officials state that the only information retained is an unverified email address and a MAC address. A MAC address is described as a unique series of numbers and letters the system uses to identify devices that are connected to it. This is far less information than most traditional internet services providers gather on a regular basis.

So Where Do the Police Come into This?
While it may be true that LinkNYC only retains this small amount of information, it also maintains records of which of the many “internet kiosks” used by LinkNYC a user is connected to. When accessed, this information could be used by police to create a relatively complete picture of where a particular individual works, lives, visits, and commutes. For example, police investigators could request the logs for a kiosk that is located near a crime scene for a specific time frame and from them learn about any nearby devices’ owners based simply on their connection to the kiosk.

Bear in mind that LinkNYC will require a subpoena before they would be able to release any information to the NYPD or any other form of law enforcement and have stated they will make every attempt to let any users impacted by such a request know what is going on.

Currently, the system is using an encryption service designed to protect users’ privacy, but as of now, it is only available to those who have the latest Apple products, again making it out of reach for those in the lower income bracket. In turn, this makes this segment of the population vulnerable to police intrusion into their privacy. LinkNYC states that privacy and security are one of their top concerns and they are working to secure the system for more devices. The jury remains out as to whether or not a free citywide Wi-Fi network such as LinkNYC is a truly secure and viable option or if will give the police yet another way to track people, especially those in the lower income brackets, without their permission or knowledge.

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