The launch Monday of a new "mesh" Wi-Fi system in London City -- the roughly mile-square area of London that houses the bulk of the financial district -- is part of a rapidly accelerating trend in municipal Wi-Fi systems.

The Cloud, for instance, was just recently founded in January 2003, and since then has become one of the leading providers of Wi-Fi service in Europe. The company's Metro Wi-Fi unit is currently involved in developing or operating Wi-Fi systems in more than 30 European cities, and the company has plans to expand across the continent.

Growth of municipal Wi-Fi in the United States has been even more rapid. According to MuniWireless, a team of Netherlands-based municipal Wi-Fi analysts, the United States had more than 300 such projects in place or in various stages of planning by the end of 2006.

Privacy Concerns

Some groups, however, are raising concerns about whether municipal Wi-Fi systems will do an adequate job of protecting the privacy of the millions of people who would be using those systems.

In a study conducted of six proposed municipal Wi-Fi systems in San Francisco, the Electronic Privacy Information Center concluded that only one of the six would adequately protect user privacy, in large part because they did not require users of the system to log in to get access to the Internet.

Four of the remaining five systems (one refused to answer EPIC's questions altogether) all planned to collect user information and monetize it in one fashion or another.

Londoner Issues

Londoners are already among the most-watched people in the world, and the new mesh Wi-Fi network will not make things better. According to The Cloud's UK WLAN Privacy Policy, the company may collect the following information from its Wi-Fi users:

  • Your name; e-mail address; organization name; phone numbers; technical details on your computer or access device; time and date of access; and location of access.
  • Your billing information, transaction, and credit card information.
  • Information regarding your personal or professional interests, demographics, experiences with the services, and contact preferences.

Unless they read that list carefully, users might be particularly surprised to realize that the mesh Wi-Fi system will be able to track their location as they access the system from different nodes. They might also not realize just how valuable that information is to both the system operator and businesses in the area covered by the mesh.

Increasingly, the online world is seeking to join forces with the "real" world through a merger of advertising and location. The idea of always-on, always-available municipal Wi-Fi might be attractive indeed, but there is no question that it will come at a cost to personal privacy.