NYC Mayor’s Wi-Fi Plan Draws Critics

Daily News Article   —   Posted on December 5, 2014
NYC Wi-Fi Plan Draws Critics(by Mike Vilensky, The Wall Street Journal) – NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio ’s plan to bring public Internet access to the five boroughs is raising concerns among cybersecurity experts and elected officials.

Announced in November, Mr. de Blasio’s initiative would build one of the world’s largest municipal Wi-Fi networks – an experiment that could backfire, analysts said, if hackers access massive troves of personal data.

“If [city officials] are not extraordinarily careful, they’re opening up Pandora’s box,” said Timothy P. Ryan, managing director of cyber-investigations at Kroll, a Manhattan-based risk-management firm.

The initiative will replace the city’s pay phones with some 10,000 so-called Link machines (Wi-Fi hubs with phone capabilities, streaming advertisements and cellular-phone chargers).

nyc-linkThe project will cost about $200 million, officials said, with a consortium of companies involved in the project sharing the ad revenue with the city. No taxpayer money will be used for construction, officials said.

The mayor’s office said the citywide Wi-Fi network could be a safe way for New Yorkers across the boroughs to access the Internet.

“It’s potentially more secure than what people have at home – if they’re not technical people, and not thinking about security,” said Minerva Tantoco, the city’s chief technology officer.

Shane Buckley, chief executive of Xirrus, a private Wi-Fi company based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said he needs convincing.

“Top Wall Street banks are getting hacked,” he said. “Can the municipal government protect a public network as securely as those folks?”

City officials said data passing through the network will be protected by encryption. The network, which will only be accessible to users with a name and password, will also block people from exchanging files and data through the network with other users, they said.

Still, security worries persist. Mr. Ryan said that while encryption and a name and password can help, public networks in the past have acted as hotbeds for child-pornography trading and other crimes, since they make it harder to trace users. And, he said, hackers who create public networks with similar names can lure people onto the wrong Wi-Fi and trace their activity.

Colin O’Donnell, a technical lead at CityBridge, the consortium of companies creating and implementing the Link machines, said a 24/7 security team will monitor the network for suspicious activity.

Mr. O’Donnell said the company would work to mitigate the threat of so-called “rogue access points,” traps used by hackers to lure users onto the wrong network, which he called “a real security concern.”

The program has also created a new political spat for Mr. de Blasio with one of his allies, Public Advocate Letitia James.

Ms. James, a fellow Democrat, said she is seeking to tweak or halt Mr. de Blasio’s program, and that the City Council should have had more say in it. She said she wrote the mayor a letter before his announcement to relay her concerns. “The response indicated that our data is flawed, and that they’re right,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. de Blasio said, “We…remain committed to working with elected officials throughout this process.”

Other municipal [city] Wi-Fi rollouts have had mixed results, officials in the those cities said.

Seattle began offering free Wi-Fi in 2005, but pulled the plug in 2012 amid high costs and equipment issues. In Mountain View, Calif., a public Wi-Fi program built in 2006 is now being dismantled because the network couldn’t handle demand.

Last year, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee launched a limited Wi-Fi network along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, which in October expanded to include more parks, plazas and open spaces. A previous program under a different mayor fizzled.

“At a fundamental level, Wi-Fi isn’t the right technology to do this job,” said Eric Fraser, an Arizona-based patent attorney who has written on the failures of public-wireless initiatives.

“If [New York officials] put one next to the High Line [park in Manhattan], people will use it. But allowing people to get on wherever they are is technologically impossible.”

Officials are only promising high-speed Wi-Fi within a 150-foot radius of each Link hub.

Some hubs will be placed near popular public spaces where people might want to lounge with their laptops, and the free Internet will be able to penetrate some walls, officials said.

“Every single city is learning from other cities about wireless,” said Maya Wiley, a counsel to Mr. de Blasio. “We can model good practices and the social benefits that come with the project.”

One major difference between New York’s program and other cities’ attempts, officials said, is New York’s built-in monetization mechanism, and the Wi-Fi speed.

Mr. de Blasio’s office has stressed that the program will help close a key resource gap, bringing free Internet to communities that can’t afford it. …

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