City’s Wi-Fi plans meet with resistance

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s plan to blanket The City with free wireless Internet access is barely underway, but has already met a wall of resistance from privacy and equality advocates.

Newsom’s office announced in February that it favored a bid by search engine Google and Internet service provider Earthlink to immerse The City in a wireless fidelity or Wi-Fi network.

The network, according to the companies, would provide free wireless Internet access anywhere in The City, and would include a premium service, provided by Earthlink for a fee. The City picked the joint plan from a field of 26 proposals submitted by various companies last fall.

But privacy advocates are sounding warning bells, claiming that the Google/Earthlink proposal comes with a violation of privacy, allowing the companies to track users’ movements and online habits.

The issue was raised again Friday at the Board of Supervisors’ Local Agency Formation committee when Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi called for a discussion of privacy and equal access issues in the wireless field proposal.

It is unclear whether the free Wi-Fi network would require a login, but even without one some level of snooping is apparently possible.

“Every laptop with a wireless card has a unique serial number called a MAC [Media Access Control] address,” that can be identified by the system operator, Seth Schoen, a technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, testified Friday.

That address, encoded within the computer’s wireless signal, could allow the system operator — in this case Google — to track the laptop’s movements. If Google decided to keep records of those movements as it has with search activity in the past, Schoen said, those records could be subpoenaed by the government.

Also at issue Friday was the effectiveness of the Wi-Fi plan in bridging the “digital divide,” the information gap that exists between those with in-home Internet access and those without.

“Free is an exaggerated term,” Mirkarimi said in an interview before the hearing. “There are gradations of service,” which could be divided along income lines.

Chris Bein, director of The City's Department of Telecommunication and Information Services, which is overseeing the Wi-Fi project, said The City has yet to arrive at its final negotiating platform. “What was proposed was a starting point for negotiations,” he said. “Many things that are not part of the proposal we're aware of and will be in the negotiations.”

amartin@examiner.com

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