Comcast to Turn Customers Modems Into Quasi-Public Wi-Fi, Raises Legal Risks
June 10, 2013 8:02 PM
Customers may have their homes raided if illegal content is downloaded on their connection
assisting with anti-piracy programs
throttling "overactive" users' cable internet connections
attacking customers' access to Netflix
, Inc.'s (
) streaming video service, Comcast Corp. (
) has received a fair amount of criticism in recent years. Now it's launching a nationwide effort that is either praise-worthy or diabolical depending on your perspective.
First piloted in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Northern Virginia, and the Greater Washington, DC metro area regions, the program turns customers' routers into quasi-public Wi-Fi access points.
While only open to subscribers, and requiring a password-authenticated connection, Comcast subscribers can now access a portion of their neighbor's bandwidth.
an Xfinity spokesperson:
Comcast’s newest Wireless Gateway broadcasts two Wi-Fi signals. By default, one is securely configured for the private use of the home subscriber. The second is a neighborhood 'xfinitywifi' network signal that can be shared. This creates an extension of the Xfinity Wi-Fi network and will allow visiting Xfinity Internet subscribers to sign in and connect using their own usernames and passwords.
Customers can opt out by refusing Comcast's special "Gateway" and buying their own cable modems/routers. Alarmingly, though, Comcast reportedly will not give any special warning (say a mailed noticed) to customers with its Gateways before turning their devices into public access points.
The feel-good message of the Comcast quasi-public WiFi bid is dampened by legal liability.
While the idea of universal access to Comcast (whose network is fairly ubiquitous due to the weakly competitive American internet market) is an appealing one, customers willing to give up a chunk of their bandwidth for the greater good may want to pause until more details emerge. So far it's unclear how Comcast is implementing the separate signals, and whether traffic will be logged as a single IP address.
In the past agencies like the
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
have shown a
proclivity to raid homes first and ask questions later
, when it comes to investigation of child pornography, hacking, or other computer crimes. As criminals often use public access points, this sounds like a nightmare for a homeowner.
Imagine someone connects to your network and downloads illegal materials. Now your IP address -- and by proxy your home -- have been linked to that investigation. While you may eventually be vindicated, it may take federal agents months after ripping through your house to realize it was not you but one of possibly hundreds of "guest" Comcast users (or someone with one of their passwords) who accessed the network.
Thus think twice before you accept Comcast's new "open" network.
"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet. A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis
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