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« Google Files Wi-Fi Ad Targeting Patent | Main | Guilty Plea in Illinois Wi-Fi Case »

March 24, 2006

The Nation Raises Privacy Concerns on Free Google-Fi

Jeff Chester notes that Google's SF offer creates "a honeypot for law enforcement": The columnist says that Google's stock-in-trade is delivering targeted ads and tracking user behavior and location to provide the right ads. Chester writes of the model of opt-out, ad-sponsored Wi-Fi service across an entire city, "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."

Three organizations dedicated to privacy and rights of expression filed comments on the Google/EarthLink bid to San Francisco: the ACLU of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Chester notes these groups urged accommodation for privacy and anonymous surfing.

Chester strays from advocating privacy to suggest that cities might develop their own community networks and that "the cost of building such networks can be very low." He points to the small town of St. Cloud, Florida, which offers free Wi-Fi for residents. But St. Cloud's costs were relatively high for a city of 30,000: "City revenue from the development is funding the $2.6 million in start-up costs, which include the first year of operation. The annual cost afterward is estimated at $400,000."

I can't see how any large city could justify the $10 to $20 million to set up and run a free Wi-Fi network even if there are ultimately cost savings involved. It's not politically popular, and offsetting the financial risk to a private company is a great alternative for towns that can't appropriately fund education and public transportation.

Where this comes to a crux, of course, is that free networks require money to support them. Advertising is one means in Google's and MetroFi's view. In both cases, however, you can still pay for advertising-free service. Whether tracking is disabled when you're paying isn't known. Opting out of using the network removes any privacy risk, but it also removes the utility of a network that has an ostensible civic purpose.

If free Wi-Fi becomes a citizen's right--at a slow speeds or for limited hours each day--it seems inappropriate to hand over control of users' privacy to a private enterprise when a municipality is, in effect, providing authorization and often some or all the city's telecom budget to provide quasi-exclusivity to the winning bidder.

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A lot of people don't care about privacy (whether they should or not is a different matter), but those who do could easily turn to anonymizers (, "JAP", etc) to protect their activity. Google would still be able to see where they were logged on from, but would not be able to identify any of their traffic. And mac address spoofing can alleviate most of the remaining pain.

Yes, it's a concern for at least some, but hardly an insurmountable one for those who are indeed concerned.

[Editor's note: I would just add here that you're making the distinction between people sophisticated to understand what they're giving up in terms of privacy and those who don't. Those who understand what's at stake can make an informed decision about using tools ("easily" only for people with more than basic expertise) to avoid tracking and not. MAC address spoofing isn't really a simple option, either.

The conversation needs to be about the tens of thousands or more of regular users who aren't interested in the technology but the utility, and aren't aware that every action will be logged and tracked, including positioning. That's a conversation, because there's a lot of valid opinion to be had about it, but we can't exclude the uninitiated.

For instance, some people don't know that the passive-radio technology used to pay for tools on the east coast--EZPass--provides a trackable and persistent record of travel, including the ability to calculate average speed between EZPass locations. Not knowing that the system does this isn't the same as opting into it.--gf]

St. Cloud's WiFi build out will cost each resident $87 and then $1.11/month. San Francisco is projected to cost something like $20 and then 35 cents/month. ---

What is not to get? When the Skype phones now on the market are fully debugged, the low cost of unbilled packet switched telecom will simply end overpriced metered telecom. ---

And forget about the poor telecom arguments, a single fiber cable and $18 million in equipment makes all the of Verizon,s equipment obsolete in San Francisco. That is nobody's problem but the owners of the obsolete infrastructure. And sure, maybe the first WiFi systems will not be able to fully replace telecom this year, but by 2007 or 2008, who knows? Rupert Murdoch said it will not be 10 or even 5 years that we see the complete death of telecom, but more like 3 years. I bet he is not too far off from reality here. ---

Would you rather pay $60/month for telecom & ISP or an extra $1/month in higher taxes? Once the WiFi systems are operational, Verizon and AT&T will die much faster than anyone thinks. Verizon in particular has a weak balance sheet and can't even afford to lose 20% of a year's revenue (or 12% of two years revenue) or it has to enter bankruptcy. ---

Never mind about privacy or funding for city wide WiFi, the real issues surrounding municipal WiFi will be dealing with the dead telecom companies. Also, who is going to buy $300 Skype phones for all the hand-to-mouth poor people when there are no more telecoms? Also, local telecom employs some 200,000 people. These workers will soon be without an industry soon.

For more information about SF Metro Connect and our solution that respects privacy, is free and open to all users and is technologially agnostic enabling all businesses to provide services to an unlimited number of people see our site at