As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, or a free internet service. The vast majority of “free” stuff you find online — social networks, for example — make money by selling your data to the highest bidder.
This goes not just for free websites but for free internet in general. According to a report by Sky News, Transport for London — the city’s public transportation authority — recently finished the testing of a pilot program that collected the location data of all daily commuters in the London Underground who had Wi-Fi enabled during any part of their journey. While the TfL publicly stated that the purpose of this “test” was to “improve the experience for customers” by “better understand[ing] how people navigate the London Underground network,” it somehow ended in the decision to potentially sell this wealth of consumer data to third parties.
Selling the information obtained from the more than 5 million commuters who just so happened to have Wi-Fi enabled when moving through the London Underground would net the TfL upwards of $50 million a year. A figure that seems like it would be pretty hard for similarly cash-strapped transportation agencies — like the MTA, for example — to ignore. And if the price of better subway service is allowing yourself to be surveilled … well, let’s just say a lot of C train riders might consider it.
For the most part, governmental agencies and authorities have stayed away from the complicated business of selling citizens’ data for revenue. (Whether that is by design, or due to general technological incompetence, is anyone’s guess.) However, the success of programs like the TfL’s could potentially open the floodgates. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to imagine a future a couple of years down the road where logging in to your local post office’s complimentary Wi-Fi nets the agency a couple of dollars. And while that doesn’t sound too terrible in the abstract, it’s worth noting the series of compounding ethical concerns such a setup brings about. If governmental bodies are incentivized to collect and sell these bits and pieces of our data, what’s to stop them from going the way of private companies and cashing in on all of it? Once that first domino falls, how do we ensure that the integrity of our data doesn’t eventually suffer the same fate as the inside of a subway car? Given the Trump administration’s previous decrees on Americans’ right to their own data, it doesn’t seem that far off.