In our travels around the Web, we keep seeing the same question being posed by legions of nervous public Wifi users: “Can Internet Service Providers see what I’m doing at hotspots?”
The answer is yes, ISPs can absolutely see everything you do if you don’t use VPN software to encrypt your Internet traffic. Up until now, that hasn’t been a huge Internet privacy issue.
After all, why would ISPs care what you’re doing at hotspots unless you’re using them to commit a crime?
While there have been quite a few arrests for downloading child pornography at hotel and library hotspots, civil offenses like illegally downloading copyrighted movies and music have largely gone undetected.
That’s because the sheer number of hotspots and illegal digital downloads has made it impractical take action against offenders. But that’s about to change in a big way – both at hotspots and on home wireless networks.
Wifi Monitoring is Coming to Your Home, Courtesy of Your ISP
In the next few weeks, the Center for Copyright Information will launch “six strikes,” an anti-piracy system designed to curb illegal downloads and peer-to-peer file-sharing. A joint venture of the MPAA, the RIAA and five major Internet providers, six strikes will effectively make ISPs the copyright cops for the motion picture and recording industries.
Six strikes will use snooping software called MarkMonitor to identify home Wifi users committing copyright violations on home wireless networks.
The participating ISPs – AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Cablevision – will then send the IP addresses associated with the accounts committing the violations a series of warnings. And they will use mandatory online copyright tutorials and escalating punitive measures like bandwidth throttling and temporarily blocking access to unspecified popular websites.
Copyright holders won’t go after offenders for their first six acts of piracy. But after that, the MPAA and the RIAA can and will subpoena the names of repeat offenders from ISPs in order take them to court. Users who say they were unfairly accused will be able to pay a $35 fee to have their case reviewed in the arbitration.
When It Comes to Online Piracy, an IP Address Isn’t a Person
Besides the obvious online privacy infringement issue six strikes raises, there are troubling questions about who’s going to be held accountable for copyright violations on wireless networks. We’ve seen what happens when unsecure home Wifi connections lead to violent high profile law enforcement raids of the homes of citizens wrongly accused of downloading child pornography.
On the civil side, legal actions initiated against home wireless subscribers by film copyright holders have been just as aggressive and less than successful.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently reported that at least six federal judges rejected mass BitTorrent lawsuits brought by copyright holders who claimed thousands of Internet subscribers were negligent when someone else downloaded movies using their home wireless networks. In other words, an IP address is not a person; and wireless subscribers can’t be held liable for the alleged infringements of other people using their networks.
It would be unrealistic to expect that six strikes’ ISP monitoring of home Wifi networks – many of which are unsecure – won’t result in the same kinds of lawsuits.
For example, what would happen if a friend used your home Wifi network while his file sharing program was running in the background, resulting in him unknowingly sharing his movie files? What if a stranger hacked your wireless network and downloaded movies or music?
Both of these events could be traced to your IP address. And you could be accused of copyright infringement without ever knowing what happened on your home network.
What Six Strikes Could Mean for Hotspots and Other Businesses
Even worse, a copy of Verizon’s six strikes measures recently obtained by TorrentFreak indicate they will also apply to business customers. That would mean coffee shops and other small businesses would have to exercise extreme caution about who and what they allow on their company networks. If anyone downloads pirated content at a hotspot, Verizon could slow the wireless speed of the business where it’s located, which would be tantamount to shutting it down.
Needless to say, this could have a profound impact on the future of Wifi hotspots.
Six strikes was created as a direct response to the failure to pass The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) – both of which drew heavy criticism from Internet companies. But this latest workaround designed to curb online piracy promises to be a nightmare for anyone using a shared or an unsecure wireless network. That’s why six strikes will undoubtedly have unintended consequences.
Wifi users are already concerned about their Internet privacy. Now they will need to use VPN software, not just to protect their information from hackers, but to protect their web browsing and P2P traffic from the prying eyes of ISPs and the entertainment industry.