Earlier this year, the Seattle Police Department bought a dedicated public WiFi network for emergency responders. This WiFi network has 160 access points around Seattle. If a mobile device has its WiFi signal turned on (which means that it automatically connects to any public WiFi network) and is in close proximity to these access points, the Police Department’s WiFi network can store the IP address, type of device, current location, and historical location of the device.
This means that the Seattle Police Department can track any mobile device with WiFi capability, and therefore any person owning a mobile device. The Seattle City Council is currently reviewing a draft policy of the network issued by the city attorney’s office.
If you are concerned about this, you should know that you are already being tracked by many companies. The Seattle Police Department just wants to use the same technology for its own purposes.
Why Companies (and the Police) Want to Track You
Businesses are able to collect information about you, such as your location, by placing tracking sensors in their stores, airports, and other places. These sensors use location data that your cell phone emits when it has WiFi turned on.
Businesses do this in order to find out what their customers like and don’t like, but they also do it to it to gather information about you. When your mobile device connects to a WiFi network, the network is able to identify the device by using the device’s MAC address, a unique identifier.
While companies argue that this data collection is not personalized (that is, they can’t directly identify you, only your device’s MAC address), it’s very easy for them to build a profile on you. For example, if you have WiFi enabled on your cell phone and happen to post on Twitter or connect to Facebook, your identity can be easily figured out.
Slouching Toward a Surveillance State
So the question isn’t whether or not you should be tracked. We’re already well beyond that point. What the Seattle Police are asking to collect is information that our mobile devices are already broadcasting to anyone who wishes to compile and store it.
The question is should we allow public WiFi networks to be used for surveillance purposes or not. Should law enforcement be allowed to store mobile device data on all citizens (not just those involved in an investigation) and track your movements, or do we have an inherent right to privacy?
While it’s right to be concerned that businesses track our movements without our consent, we should be doubly concerned when government agencies want to do the same thing.