NYC Starts Offering Free WiFi Via Payphone Kiosks…But At What Cost to Your Online Privacy?


24/7 free WiFi access in New York City telephone kiosks? No, you’re not dreaming!

The pilot program to offer free broadband access via public payphone kiosks is part of the Bloomberg administration’s “efforts to promote greater digital inclusion for New Yorkers,” which also includes wireless at schools, libraries, and senior centers.

The first location is at West 58th Street and Broadway, with at least 10 other locations throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn (545 Albee Square and 2 Smith Street), and Queens (30-94 Steinway Street, Astoria).

Plans are in place to open locations in the Bronx and Staten Island, and NYC officials hope to spread public WiFi throughout the city, which includes more than 12,000 payphones in about 9,000 locations.

It’s costing about $2,000 per location, but what is this going to really cost the average citizen in terms of online privacy protections?

Turns out, it could be a lot more than $2,000.

The True Costs

According to an article in The Gothamist, the only current security worry is that “the payphones are more likely to be damaged by graffiti or a taxi careening into one, and that vandalism like a missing phone had actually dropped dramatically.”

Too bad the NYC technology officials behind this otherwise awesome idea are missing the point of potential crime. It’s not the crime you can see — for example, graffiti — but the crime you can’t see. Take identity theft, credit fraud, or any other type of cyber crime — all of those terrible things happen without seeing the actual dirty fingerprints of the criminal at work.

The signal would extend out a couple of hundred feet, but according to a report from McAfee and Guardian Analytics, cloud cyber crime is enjoying a boom. Criminal hackers are employing cloud resources to provide the data-crunching power that they previously relied on their victims’ own computers to supply.

Without proper encryption and the use of a personal VPN, anyone else can see your personal details, passwords, user names, and other sensitive information. But a personal VPN works to communicate securely between two points. The security is provided by encryption, and the two sides must both use the same encryption algorithm and key for it to work. This means that no one else can understand, or more importantly, modify the information being communicated.

That is important because there is no control over radio waves that are bouncing around the city streets.

In 2011, the FBI reported that 300,000 identity theft victims lost a combined $1.1 billion to Internet criminals. That’s an average of about $3,666 per victim.

The typical Internet criminal commits literally thousands of these crimes and almost never gets caught. According to the FBI, nearly 304,000 Internet crime complaints in 2010 resulted in 1,420 cases and only six convictions. So for every 50,000 victims, one cybercriminal was convicted.

Security Worries and Future Options

In response to the decreased use of payphones, other options for out-of-date kiosks include touch-screen wayfinding panels, information kiosks, charging stations for mobile communications devices, or virtual bulletin boards.

But are touch-screen technologies practical in the all-weather environment of city sidewalks? Could touchscreen technology allow for a digital advertising panel to convert to a neighborhood map or a subway map at a pedestrian’s touch? Would it be practical to offer powered mobile device plug-in or wireless power facilities where a pedestrian could connect a mobile device that is low on power in order to make a phone call or otherwise use the device?

More importantly, why are city officials not taking this time to remind its citizens to use a virtual private network to encrypt all of their personal communications while using the phone kiosks?

The city says it’s free, but nothing in life ever is, so protect your privacy before a cyber-thief finds you first.

To learn more about making WiFi more secure, check out a whitepaper from Cisco called “The Future of Hotspots: Making WiFi as Secure and Easy to Use as Cellular.”

We have warned about these kinds of hotspot attacks for years, but it is significant that Cisco agrees with our analysis. After all, Cisco is the largest manufacturer of WiFi equipment, having shipped 10 million WiFi access points to customers. If they are saying that wireless hotspots are inherently vulnerable to attacks, you can be sure that they know what they are talking about.


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Elaine Rigoli

Elaine Rigoli is PRIVATE WiFi's manager of digital content strategy.

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