We don’t want you to know

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Two weeks ago this column looked at some of the circumstances related to “You don’t need to know.” For security reason there are indeed some things the consumer and internet user does not have any real need to know. Continuing with that theme this week we will look at a more sinister and troubling corollary to “You don’t need to know” and that is “We don’t want you to know.”

In a disconcerting move, some Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have started taking a we-don’t-want-you-to-know attitude toward the modems, residential routers and Wi-Fi equipment they are placing inside the homes of their customers. When an ISP makes we-don’t-want-you-to-know its policy then its customers end up with equipment in their homes over which they cannot exercise any control. Regrettably, more and more ISPS are adopting this wrongheaded policy.

The reason this is chilling and unsettling is what Comcast is doing in the USA (and I need to add that to my knowledge no ISP in Mexico is doing this). Point your browser to http://wifi.comcast.com and scroll down the page to the interactive map where you will see “Over 1 million hotspots across the country.” Sounds good, right? It does sound like quite a convenient service until one stops to analyze the method by which Comcast created a million hotspots.

Many internet users who have Wi-Fi equipment in their homes choose to configure encryption and a password to prevent their neighbors or anyone else “poaching” off of their wireless signal. What Comcast is doing is taking advantage of its ability to reconfigure customer’s network hardware remotely from the central office. Comcast enables the wireless hardware to ignore password security the customers may have put in place and open the wireless router to accept connections from any other Comcast customer. Ta-Da! One million hotspots!

Some tech-savvy Comcast customers have reacted very negatively upon learning about this and question what right their ISP has to share a customer’s Wi-Fi and internet access without knowledge or consent of the customer. Comcast takes the position it is not your internet, it is Comcast’s internet; and it is not your modem, it belongs to Comcast which can do with it as it pleases even with it in your home.

Comcast alleges there are safeguards in place and no security risk in permitting persons unknown to share your Wi-Fi (yeah, sure). And it asserts that the bandwidth used by others will not count against your usage (apparently meaning that your broadband speeds are throttled as are all the uninvited “poachers” who are sharing your connection). Most Comcast customers do not know what is happening inside their own homes because Comcast’s policy is “You don’t need to know.” Those in the know find this as creepy as if the electric company unlocked your doors to admit complete strangers into your home but reassures you that is okay because you will not be billed for the electricity they use.

Discussions already are found on some blogs and newsgroups revealing how some Comcast customers are coping. Faced with being required to have residential routers controlled by Comcast in their homes, some customers have resorted to buying their own wireless routers which they are able to secure with a password unknown to Comcast and to connect this router to the Comcast-controlled equipment. Then they wrap their Comcast hardware in multiple layers of aluminum foil to smother Comcast’s Wi-Fi signal. If that causes the electronics to overheat it could kill the device, but since Comcast says that equipment is their property it should be its problem if it fails.

My hope is that more awareness of this situation will lead consumers to a better understanding of the important difference between “You don’t need to know” and “We don’t want you to know.”

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.


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