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.

Posted by on Jul 30, 2014 in Home | 2 Comments


  1. Adam Beaumont
    30th July 2014

    I’ve read your article with interest. Usually it’s absolutely true – there is no such thing as a free lunch.

    However – Leeds based aql have managed to create a model to allow free wifi without the sinister trade-off of customer data.

    This is because aql’s main Leeds datacentres hold the main northern internet exchange – IXLeeds – the only mutual exchange outside of London. This is where all the networks meet to exchange traffic. The more traffic we have on site, the more content providers and ISP’s connect to our datacentres and pay us rental for our space.

    SO – if we generate traffic by giving away free internet connectivity, this does actually drive revenue for aql from datacentre space rental by the big content providers.

    So – although not a free lunch, it’s certainly free to the public and it’s the big internet names that pay for the service indirectly!

  2. Jim
    31st July 2014

    While the WiFi providers can obtain a MAC address for the device used to access the free WiFi it’s certainly possible for some users to spoof that.

    What concerns me more is exactly HOW the WiFi provider is collecting any information. The know the MAC address used to connect and can also snoop any non-encrypted traffic. But beyond that I’m unsure how they can obtain any other information.

    Please can you elaborate on what is collected and how.