What we'd do next
In cities, Wi-Fi is becoming the backbone of urban life. Free networks provide valuable access to the internet to people who wouldn't otherwise be able to get online. But using it means data about what they browse on the internet, what devices they use and even where they go can be collected and shared by Wi-Fi providers. None of that is clear at point of access.
Wi-Fi is broken. Networks without a password are easy to access, but expose everything people do while they use them to those who want to snoop on others. Browsing data is kept for an unknown amount of time, used without any transparency, and traded with impunity. All of the risk sits at the user's end; companies transfer it to them using impenetrable terms and conditions agreements.
When you start to look at how Wi-Fi is implemented, you can see the ways it erodes trust. Or, at least, how it would erode trust. Right now, the impact of these bad practices are so obscure to people using free Wi-Fi that it's impossible to tell how it might affect them.
Designing good Wi-Fi
If we were working on the challenge of designing good Wi-Fi, here are the areas we'd look at next. All of them need to start from the basis of finding out what people need and how we can design for that. It's not an exhaustive list, but it's a good place to start…
- Prototype a "good" free Wi-Fi network, and use that to develop design guidelines
- Explore how to evolve technical standards to make networks more secure
- Understand what it would take to treat Wi-Fi like a utility, and what protections and regulation this might lead to
- Analyse the business model and design for one that doesn't rely on data collection
- Work with an ISP to replace the terms and conditions with a better model
- Develop a plain English guide to setting up a router and a secure free Wi-Fi network
- Run a project to iterate the Wi-Fi icon, so it explains how secure a network is
Start with people, make things better
These kind of briefs need a mix of skills. They need teams who can make new things, interrogate technology and find out what people really need. We think these skills are a necessity for those developing policies, or city plans, or who commission services.
Research like this is important. It leads to technologies that empower people, and holds organisations to account. It demystifies technology, and helps us fix problems before it's too late. When the next big security story arrives we can’t afford to be shocked; it’s our responsibility to make things better.
If you're interested in exploring the work further, get in touch.