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4/10/2006
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Google's Wi-Fi Plan For San Francisco Stirs Privacy Debate

Privacy advocates have raised concerns over Google's proposal for "free" Wi-Fi service in San Francisco, which would target users with advertising based on their location.

Privacy advocates have raised concerns over Google's proposed free Wi-Fi service in San Francisco, which would target users with advertising based on their location.

Most troubling is the potential of tracking where people go on the Web based on the user names and passwords they use in signing on to the network. If that information is stored in a database, then government or private lawyers can subpoena it later in criminal or civil matters.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based privacy group, has submitted to the city guidelines and minimum standards it considers necessary for protecting people's privacy. The recommendations have been taken under advisement, but it's unclear how much impact they will have on negotiations between Google and its partners, and Chris Vein, the head of the city's technology department.

Any deal, however, would ultimately have to be approved by the city's Board of Supervisors.

The EFF has recommended that people be allowed to surf anonymously on the wireless network, which would operate at a less than broadband speed of 300 kilobytes per second. In addition, the group does not want information on users stored in databases long enough to become a potential problem for users.

"We're asking that the system allow people to surf and to post and read things anonymously," Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for EFF, said Monday. "Because the system requires people to sign on, it creates the opportunity for persistent tracking."

Google would deliver advertising based on the location of the node, or Wi-Fi transmitter, people were using to access the system. The company, however, says it's too early in the process to know how the final deal will address user privacy.

"The privacy of our users remains of utmost importance," the Mountain View, Calif., company said in an emailed statement. "We are in the very early stages of the planning process and look forward to working with the City of San Francisco and EarthLink to provide free Wi-Fi access to the residents of San Francisco."

The city chose the bid of Google and Earthlink last week from a total of six proposals. Earthlink would operate a paid service on the network without advertising. Also helping in the construction of the citywide network are Motorola and Tropos Networks. Earthlink has pegged the cost at $8 million.

All provisions of the bid, however, are up for negotiations, which mean none have been accepted or rejected by the city.

The Google-Earthlink proposal addressed privacy, saying that the system would "not store the content of any of your online communications or data transfers."

"On a regular basis, we delete account and usage information associated with your use of Google Wi-Fi," an excerpt of the proposal sent by Google says.

Privacy and the use of the Internet recently took center stage in a Bush administration effort to gather data from search engines and other companies as part of a civil case to revive an anti-pornography law that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Department of Justice subpoenaed information from 34 Internet service providers, Internet search companies, and security software firms. Google, however, refused to turn over the data, saying the request was overly broad. The government trimmed its request, and a San Jose, Calif., federal court ruled that Google had to turn over some search-related information, but far less than originally requested. None of the data requested by the government could be used to identify individuals or groups.

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