Rights and networksContents

Working with Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi as a material

Wi-Fi is a technology that’s made up of lots of standards. The standards are essentially rules for how devices can connect to each other wirelessly. So Wi-Fi creates a network that can connect lots of products (like smartphones or tablets) to one another and, most importantly, to the internet.

There are different kinds of network, some are password protected and some aren't. Networks that don't have password protection are easier for people to join, but the information shared on them isn’t encrypted. Different networks give people browsing the internet different degrees of protection, but that’s not immediately apparent at point of use.

To connect via Wi-Fi, both the network and the device need to be findable so they can search for each other and connect. So a Wi-Fi router both continually broadcasts its name and continuously searches for products to connect with. At the same time, a mobile phone with Wi-Fi turned on is also broadcasting its name, searching for routers to connect to.

Animation showing a router and a mobile phone. The router says "Looking for products" and the phone says "Looking for networks". Waves appear and disappear between the router and the phone. A question mark appears in the middle.

Routers search and broadcast for products to connect to (Image: IF, CC-BY)

When the phone is within range of a network it has previously joined it will connect automatically. A code called a MAC address is taken from the phone and stored by the router. Simultaneously the router assigns an IP address to the phone. It’s this exchange that’s interesting to us here.

Free Wi-Fi and the places people go

Providers of free Wi-Fi have a commercial interest in collecting data. A national system, like BT’s, is able to log where different devices connect to the network, effectively tracking where users go.

You don’t need to actually connect to a network to have your phone's details recorded by it, but that relationship isn’t visible or obvious to you. As you walk down a street you’re being intercepted by tens if not hundreds of networks.

A person walks down a street holding a phone. They move between a section of the scene marked "Crown and anchor public" and "The Cloud"

As you walk down a street you're being intercepted by networks (Image: IF, CC-BY)

Some Wi-Fi enabled products now randomise MAC addresses which makes the products harder to identify and reduces the long-term tracking of people using a network. But that’s by no means universal. Meanwhile, the short-term capability has been used by companies like Renew and Transport for London to map how people move through spaces.

So we started to investigate free Wi-Fi; how people use it, how it appears in spaces, and what legal relationships we enter into when we use it. We made use of published standards and its quasi-ubiquitous availability to collect important evidence, to see how it affects the way people live with it.