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Public Wifi: practical resource or terrorist haven?

lockMuch like comfortable chairs and warm radiators, a wifi connection is now so expected in cafes that it seems odd to think of a coffee house without wireless internet. But are independent locations, unaffiliated with Starbucks or other big corporations, putting us – and themselves – at risk by offering unprotected internet?

A recent survey showed that out of 3,349 venues worldwide, 2,048 said they were running open networks (without any password protection), or openly gave away their wifi passwords without taking any identifying information from customers.

This means that any users of those networks could access the internet from that location without being tracked. Politicians typically tout this as being hugely beneficial for terrorists, but it’s quite useful for cyber criminals too.

If the police track a cyber offence, they’ll get to a dead-end when they reach the cafe offering free wifi. That cafe won’t know who used their wifi or at what time, so it’ll be very difficult for the police to continue their investigation or know which of the cafe’s patrons have been abusing the connection.

The solution? More passwords

Unfortunately for users, the only solution to this issue is signing up to a venue’s wifi service – which means another username and password to remember. Some wifi providers make it easier for users by allowing social logins, which mean your Facebook or Twitter details are used to automatically sign your up. However, this leads to sharing more of your personal details with the company.

Another downside to venue-based sign-ups is that the wifi provider will be able to track what you do online and link it to your personal account, building up quite a marketing portfolio on you. The venue could learn your age, gender, how often you visit, how long you stay and lots of other information.

Of course, these aren’t necessarily bad things. If you love your local coffee shop and want them to send you special offers, then it’ll add up to a better user experience. Lots of people, however, won’t want any more emails in their inbox.

The benefits of bureaucracy

It’s not all marketing and password-remembering, though. Venues that employ this type of system will typically have outsourced their setup, which means the company providing the system will have enhanced the wifi’s security.

We’ve previously discussed how it can be unsafe to use public wifi, but an externally managed system would probably allay most of these concerns.

Therefore the question is – what’s most important to you? Do you value your online anonymity, or would you prefer a safer, more tracked system? It’s questions like these that are going to define our internet experiences over the next decade – so get thinking.

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