As New Orleans pursues citywide Wi-Fi, cybersecurity expert weighs risks, cost

The city of New Orleans issued a request for proposals Friday that seeks advanced broadband internet service and the vast infrastructure needed to provide it. This would include free wireless access for homes where either there’s no current connection available or residents can’t afford to connect.

Officials say the project can be delivered at no expense to the city. Federal grants are available to cover part of the cost, plus the vendor could sell the vast amounts of data it collects to recoup its out-of-pocket investment.

But are there hidden costs when it comes to the public’s privacy?

Bob Oster, CEO of nSpire Technologies in Harahan, provides IT and cybersecurity services for its business clients. The city’s formal bid proposal calls for the vendor to “maintain security and privacy for residents,” which he said leads him to believe officials are paying close attention to these matters.

“The city has to be diligent in its cybersecurity efforts before it can even think about this,” Oster said.

New Orleans has spent more than $7 million in the wake of a December 2019 ransomware that disabled city departments and required a security overall of the municipal IT system. It was one of several government entities targeted in cyberattacks over recent months.

Free public Wi-Fi potentially increases the opportunity for hackers who could tap into networks where users are sharing personal information and conducting online transactions. Oster said city officials should opt for a vendor that offers unique log-in credentials to individual users, as opposed to a shared password.

“Any open Wi-Fi is susceptible to a man-in-the-middle attack, where someone can put a device somewhere nearby and replicate that Wi-Fi signal,” he said.

The data collected from public Wi-Fi is not all that different from what internet users share when using search engines such as Google or browsing online, Oster said. It’s also collected whenever a smartphone is used through a Wi-Fi connection. This information is valuable to advertisers, who pay broadband service providers to cull it.

“They’re going to have data on … how people travel, how people move about the city, how people behave online, on a very generic and general basis,” he said.

As for any “Big Brother” monitoring from the city through public access to broadband, Oster said that technology already exists and there are laws that regulate its use.

“It does expand the capabilities of the government to track someone that was … off the grid. Now, they’re on the grid a little bit more,” he said.

According to the city’s request for proposals, it wants to work with a vendor that can provide “applications such as smart street lighting, traffic management, water management and flood mitigation, disaster preparedness and response, wayfinding and other communications…”

Oster said enhanced broadband is “the way of the future.” If the city includes the necessary protections, the modern infrastructure holds great promise, he said.

Another concern Oster raised is whether New Orleans neighborhoods such as the French Quarter can accommodate high-speed internet infrastructure. He said his company has run into obstacles trying to provide services to its clients there.

“How are they going to handle preservation of historical buildings and locations and still provide what they want?” Oster asked.

Kim LeGrue, the city’s information technology director, said Friday the request for proposals asks vendors to include cellular internet access options such as 4G and 5G in addition to broadband connections.

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