Free Wi-Fi Not Without Cost

The first thing I think of when I hear about plans to introduce a new, public Wi-Fi service that will provide free internet for users in New York City, is Citi Bike.  Every day, thousands of bikers speed through the streets of New York using the public bicycle sharing system that began service in 2013; currently, it is the largest bike sharing program in the US, with plans to expand its fleet to 12,000 bikes by 2017.  All people have to do is just go to a docking station, hop on a bike, and go for a ride.

Of course, Citi Bike is a privately owned service, one which you have to pay for, either as a subscriber or via more short-term passes, which place a time limit on your trip, what’s more.  So it’s not an exact 1:1 analogy.

Even so, the new Wi-Fi service, called LinkNYC, will similarly allow users, whether residents or tourists, to quickly hop on the Internet as it’s rolled out this year.  Adequate data security, however, appears to be a troubling issue.  Users will be required to register with their email address and give consent to providers to gather information about what sites they visit, clickthroughs, etc.  Oh, but don’t worry: CityBridge, the company handling the implementation, assures us that they will make “reasonable efforts” to remove information from the database for inactive users after one year.  That’s just vague enough to sound completely unhelpful.

Rightfully so, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) has expressed these concerns, primarily the risk of users having their information retained indefinitely.  Once you’re in the database, after all, you’re within easy reach of a savvy hacker, or government agency.  I guess nothing is ever really free.  “New Yorkers’ private online activities shouldn’t be used to create a massive database that’s within the ready grasp of the New York City Police Department,” says Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, though LinkNYC managers insist they would only share this information under subpoena, and never to third parties.

I don’t know how comforting that is supposed to be in a world where a measly software coding error can lead to a breach, even a minor one, like the one in which Walmart’s online pharmacy exposed the health information of its patients to other users who were logged in over the course of a 72 hour period.  Around 5,000 people had their names, addresses and prescription histories revealed, so, like I said, relatively minor.  But when errors this simple occur, it leaves me hesitant about the safety of these online services.  As it would to get on a bike without a helmet.


By: Jonathan Weicher, post on March 21, 2016
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Copyright: NetLib