There's No Such Thing As Free WiFi

textFollowing York Council’s announcement that the city is to become the first in the UK with city-wide free Wifi, the Council has found itself in hot water for failing to properly inform users about the fact mobile users could find personal information, including their precise location, exposed.

It has been reported that when mobile users sign up for the free WiFi service they are inadvertently handing over vast amounts of personal information. The technology picks up signals from your mobile and links them with your social media profile on your smartphone – storing information such as your age, gender, interests, friends and your location. A BBC report shows exactly how the information is used and analysed.

Whilst we have become accustomed to accessing internet services for free in the expectation that our data will be used for marketing or advertising purposes (there is no such thing as a free lunch after all), we continue to call for internet users to be provided more transparent information about what happens to their data when they sign up for a service.

Mobile users will also be alarmed to find that, even if they do not sign up for the WiFi service, the phones unique identifier, known as a MAC code, can be tracked. The CEO of Purple WiFi, the provider in York, Gavin Wheeldon has made it very clear how valuable this data is, stating that there is not an opt-out option because he believes “it’s a fair exchange of value.” It is simply not acceptable that thousands of shoppers in York City Centre are giving up their data without knowledge of doing so and without receiving anything in return – perhaps not such a fair exchange as Mr Wheeldon would like us to think.

York City Council should perhaps look at the City of London where a similar scheme, which allowed similar technology in recycling bins to track nearby individuals’ smartphones, was stopped after the public raised concerns about the intrusive nature of the technology.

There are still issues for those who choose to sign up to the service. Whilst it is true that users are told that their information will be gathered and analysed, it is, as has become the norm, tucked away in long, jargon-filled terms and conditions. When it comes to personal information being used by companies it is only right that the individual is given all the relevant details, without having to trawl through hundreds of pages of legalistic language.

It is not unreasonable to call for greater individual control over their personal information – nor is it unachievable. This sort of practice can already be seen in the United States where The Wireless Registry allows each individual to personalise just how much information they give away in return for free WiFi. Individuals should always be able to make an informed decision on how much data they are comfortable with sharing and control of an individuals’ personal data should in in the hands of the individual – not the service provider.