The Seattle Police Department recently agreed to take down the controversial WiFi detection equipment in downtown due to spying concerns.
You may have seen this equipment if walking in the downtown area recently. On many street utility poles there are white boxes with antennas coming out of them. These are transmitters of WiFi networks called “4th & Seneca”, “4th & Union”, etc. The WiFi network sounds great until you realize they are locating and tracking all WiFi enabled devices. These devices were provided for with a Homeland Security grant.
According to The Stranger, the SPD did not state what this information will be used for, who has access or whether or not SPD has already used this information. It was entirely unclear what was happening with this information.
With so much concern firing up over these WiFi boxes, the system was deactivated. KOMO News reported interim Seattle Police Chief Jim Pugel made the decision on Tuesday, Nov 12.
Seattle City Council has a requirement stating that surveillance must be approved before installation, so the system will not be reactivated until City Council makes a plan and lets the issue go to vote and public debate.
Seattle is not the first place to encounter “WiFi spying” or the potentiality of it. Many retail stores that provide WiFi can link up with your WiFi card. Your WiFi card can let the local router know your phone’s ID number and track you, and in turn look at behavioral patterns. This has turned into the real life version of vendors tracking online purchases.
The Washington Post stated no personally indetifiable information can be gathered, but it’s easy to cross reference the data received with other data such as public records and commercial information.
It appears the way to avoid this is to go to an “opt-out” site such as Nomi where you type in your MAC address and ask to be exempt from tracking, although Washington Post notes some companies don’t have the “opt-out feature.”
Companies are trying to start up services for a Do Not Call list of MAC addresses to avoid being tracked by major tracking companies.
Rumors of tracking have gone so far as to suggest WiFi tracking trashcans, mentioned on StoryLeak. Supposedly these devices were introduced to the financial of London for beta testing. The program was pulled this August after the City of London Corporation insisted the company pull the plug.
Spying has become a huge concern, especially as conversation has reached the national scale. The recent scandal has been the U.S spying on over 70 million phone calls over 30 days.
CNN reported the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters, “These kinds of practices between partners, which violate privacy, are totally unacceptable.”
The initial response from the United States concerning the matter has been something along the lines of “everybody spies”; however recently President Hollande and President Obama have been in conversation to review how intelligence is gathered and the concerns on privacy.
Whether it is a trashcan, a shiny box, or the National Security Agency, there are no ways to escape the way we are being tracked through our use of WiFi and smartphones. It may be for counterterrorism or shopping trends, but either way our handy dandy phones are creating privacy risks for us all.