When free is not free

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An in-depth look at downtown Opelika’s ‘free’ wireless internet

By Nickolaus Hines

Opelika Observer

The public spaces of downtown Opelika are buzzing with the invisible waves of the 21st century: free communal wireless Internet connectivity.

Similar to the importance of federal grazing lands to cattlemen, or the importance of the interstate highway system to the shipping industry, Internet accessibility is a requirement in the working world. It’s also become the medium for many forms of communication — from one-to-one personal messaging to personal broadcasting on social media to the broadcasting of official news organizations.

So for all intents and purposes, it appeared to be a good thing when a free and accessible network called “DowntownFreeWiFi” became available. But as is the case with nearly all free things, “free” comes at a price.

“By using our Service you agree to your personal information being collected, held, used and disclosed as set out in this policy,” reads the DowntownFreeWiFi end-user license agreement (EULA).

Broad, vague and nondescript EULAs are nothing new — people have been checking the “I Agree” box without reading, let alone understanding, the legalese they agree to since EULAs became standard practice. Ignoring them has become such a common facet of American culture that the subject has been addressed in everything from law journals to South Park.

And it wouldn’t make sense to read every EULA presented to you. A study published in 2008 in I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society estimated that it would take an annual commitment of one month to read every agreement you run into. There are, however, certain things to know about DowntownFreeWiFi’s specific EULA before agreeing to the terms and conditions.

The price of free

DowntownFreeWiFi is not assisted, distributed by, or in any terms connected with the city of Opelika, said Barbara Arrington, administrative assistant to Mayor Gary Fuller. The service is provided by John Marsh, owner of jMarsh Advertising. The last word in the company name is one to keep in mind.

“As far as I know, the actual wireless doesn’t belong to us,” Marsh said. “It belongs to Ma Fia’s.” Marsh also stated that he is not positive who wrote the EULA. The router that distributes DowntownFreeWiFi is on Ma Fia’s building, and the signal can be picked up along South Railroad [Avenue] and Avenue A.

“We collect and analyze data like demographics, psychographics and most importantly actual behavior online and offline to uncover trends common to certain types of customers,” the jMarsh Advertising website states.

Rick Yockachonis, owner of Ma Fia’s, was not available for comment by deadline.

The cost of free wifi lies in how valuable each user’s data is to marketing companies and the advertisers they sell to. As outlined in the EULA, information gathered from each website visited, each location logged into and even things such as scheduling a doctor’s appointment can be directly used by jMarsh Advertising.

Specifically:

“The type of information we collect includes:

Your personal information, such as your first and last name, address, phone number(s), and email address

The number of users of our Service and the length of each session

The types of devices that are used when accessing our Service and the device ID number

The types of browsers our customers use and the websites and pages they visit

The locations where the device used (sic)”

The dragnet, catch-all wording of DowntownFreeWiFi’s EULA makes it impossible to know exactly what is being done by the service provider now versus what the service provider can do in the future.

Each additional clause to the EULA is one more layer of protection to prevent litigation against the company. If the EULA mentioned that it can and will collect only a user’s first name, for example, a litigation-happy user could bring a lawsuit against Marsh’s company by saying the company breached the contract or invaded privacy. Whereas a clause-riddled and overly detailed EULA is like a titanium bodysuit in the court of law, because what each user agrees to is specifically laid out. So while jMarsh Advertising may never collect the address and information entered on every website you visit while using their service, there isn’t anything anyone can do if they already have or decide to one day start.

If you are of the mindset that you don’t have anything to hide — therefore there is no problem with someone collecting your data — then there’s a type of data interpretation that you aren’t acknowledging. Or the next time you are slammed with higher insurance rates might be because of that gum disease research done over your morning coffee, warns Ryan McCann, owner of Computer Paramedics.

“There’s been a lot of conversation about GPS access on guest wifi,” McCann said. “Somebody knows you’ve been to the doctor’s office or down the road where drug dealers live, if someone wants to collect that data, it’s there.”

DowntownFreeWiFi, for example, states that they may “share the information we collect with our related entities or with third parties, in order to meet the purposes for which it is collected.” The third parties mentioned could be anything from a company that provides “support services” and helps with marketing, or “vendors, business partners and other organizations wishing to provide promotions or product and services to you.”

Promotions, for example, that could be sent to the email address that was legally collected while a person’s device was using DowntownFreeWiFi.

“It’s not like anybody is trying to steal your identity,” McCann said, “but you logged on and they collected it (your data) legally.”

Users have to consider the tradeoff. While not paying for the Internet service with money, users are paying with personal information that can then be turned around and sold for pennies on the dollar to everyone from side-banner advertisers to the highest bidding insurance company.

People are used to deals like this by now — think Gmail, Facebook, Google and some local newspapers.  Each of those websites collects valuable data about the person behind the click to provide a service free of monetary charge to the customer. Whether or not people would knowingly pay for those services is a different story, but people have gotten complacent when trading their privacy and interests for free services.

And none of that would be free without the terms established in extensive EULAs.

The safest practices when using open wifi

The intersection of understanding the risks of using open and public wifi versus the monetary benefits is where a person must make their decision, said McCann.

Using public wifi is like driving or riding in a car. Being in a car means that you assume the risk that someone might hit you, but you can mitigate those risks by wearing your seatbelt and riding in a car with safe airbags. Public wifi, like a car, serves a need that is worth taking calculated risks for.

“Be judicious about the way you use the wifi,” McCann said. “rather than reading every detail of the EULA, just follow safe habits and don’t log on to unsecured websites.”

McCann suggests using private phone hotspots or using a wifi that requires a password. To be completely safe, however, pay your bills and access your bank account at home on a secure — private — connection that you know no one else is using. While jMarsh Advertising won’t be accessing your bank account, anyone can access public Internet and connections can be made from computer to computer.

“It can be regulated in a lot of different ways,” McCann said, “but creating those secure connections is really going to be the key to keeping people’s data safe.”

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