France may consider public Wi-Fi ban during emergencies

French officials are considering shutting down shared Wi-Fi during states of emergency. CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains why.

Le Monde report says French police also want to outlaw Tor anonymity software

When people use public Wi-Fi or anonymity software like Tor, they're difficult to track. (CBC)

Many people have become used to the convenience of free public wireless network connections. But in the wake of the November attacks in Paris, French officials are considering shutting down shared Wi-Fi during states of emergency.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains why.

What would the proposed ban on free Wi-Fi involve?

We don't have all the details. What we do know about this so far comes from a leaked document seen by the French newspaper Le Monde.

According to their report, the French Ministry of Interior is currently looking at two proposed bills. One is related to France's state of emergency and the other deals with counter-terrorism.

A member of the French judicial police unit speaks on the phone at the scene of a November 18 raid scene near Paris. A leaked report says French police are asking for new powers, including a ban on public Wi-Fi during states of emergency. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters )
The report also says French police have asked for additional powers. They want to make free, shared Wi-Fi illegal during states of emergency.

They also are reportedly looking at completely outlawing Tor, free software which allows anonymous internet browsing and messaging.

The rationale behind the proposals is that when people use public Wi-Fi or software like Tor, they're difficult to track. And in a state of emergency, like last month's attacks in Paris, law enforcement wants to be able to track suspects.

What's the reaction been to this news?

Unsurprisingly, technologists and privacy advocates are not fans of these proposed changes. They've characterized it as a "knee-jerk" reaction to the attacks in Paris.

Nathan Freitas is a fellow at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. He argues it's precisely during states of emergency when open Wi-Fi is at its most useful, especially when the regular cellphone networks are down.

"People are just trying to get a message out that says, 'I'm alive,' or 'Where are you?' or 'Help,'" he said. "So the idea that you would lock down, or make it illegal to do that, when at the same time...your mobile infrastructure can't handle these things, just makes no sense."

Technically speaking, how feasible is banning public Wi-Fi?

It would be difficult. Even if France did enact a law banning public Wi-Fi during states of emergency, it's not clear how they would  — or could — enforce such a law.

Public Wi-Fi is widespread in France. Many French cities have municipal Wi-Fi networks, libraries have shared public Wi-Fi, and homes and businesses have Wi-Fi networks.

When I lived in France in 2012, my home router had two wireless networks — one for my private, home network, and another that was publicly accessible. I didn't do anything special to set that up. It was the default, out-of-the-box setting.

Blocking the anonymity software Tor could be done, but it would be difficult. The only country to have effectively blocked Tor so far is China, with its so-called "Great Firewall" — the set of legislation and projects that regulates the use of the internet there.

How has public Wi-Fi been used in past crisis situations?

There are many examples, going back to the early 2000s, when Wi-Fi was very new.

Facebook's Safety Check was used during the attacks in Paris. The feature allowed users to let others in their network know they were safe. (Facebook)
Nathan Freitas mentions, for example, his experience in Manhattan on September 11, 2001.

He said when the cellphone networks went down, businesses like Starbucks opened up their Wi-Fi to the public.

More recently, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, law professor Jonathan Zittrain called for individuals and businesses to open up their Wi-Fi networks, to take some of the strain off cell networks. He said that kind of access is vital in such situations.

"In times of trouble, whether it's a natural disaster of something more sinister like an attack, the most important thing that people affected want to be able to do is communicate with one another and with the authorities," he said. 

"And often that's exactly when infrastructure goes down, because it's been interrupted."

What should we watch for next on these proposed Wi-Fi restrictions?

Le Monde reported that we could see legislation around the two bills the French government is considering as early as 2016. 

Whether the French police's desire to lock down Wi-Fi and Tor will be part of that legislation, though, remains to be seen.

To be clear, the reports so far are based on a leaked internal document. That means we don't know if this is the approach of one person or a sentiment that's more widely held in the French government.

Beyond France, though, this could be part of a much larger debate around the potential for communications technologies like Wi-Fi, or encryption technologies like Tor, to be used for good, versus the possibility they may be used for evil.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.


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