Privacy and a Northampton municipal network

Our coalition feels that if built, a Northampton municipal network should protect the privacy of those using it. Users should have confidence that the city won’t be tracking what they are doing online.

If you use Comcast Xfinity, they are tracking your usage of the Internet. It has a pretty good idea of your interests, or at least the interests of people at your address on their network, based on the websites you go to and the Internet services you access. This information is very valuable. Comcast can sell the information to interested parties, including the government, or use it to market services to you it thinks you will like. This of course helps Comcast generate more profits, and makes the value of your subscription more than the cost it charges you to connect to the service. Naturally, they aren’t sharing any of these extra profits with you, just their shareholders.

Any managed network must monitor overall trends. We are fine with this, as long as the information is aggregated and depersonalized. For example, if more traffic is going to Netflix, the network might need to increase the number of circuits dedicated to connecting to Netflix, so there is no degradation of service. All networks must do this or service can degrade.

Why is privacy so important? Courts have interpreted a right to privacy from reading the U.S. Constitution. The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from searching people or their property without a warrant. In our electronic age, it’s not hard for network operators to monitor all traffic across its network. Network monitoring software is quite sophisticated and can automatically flag sites of interest. Unfortunately, there have been documented instances of our government doing just this, particularly in response to 9/11. This was arguably unconstitutional. Consequently, we believe that even though this network would be managed by the city, the city should not be routinely monitoring individuals in this way.

This is not just a good idea, but a must. To make sure this happens, policies must be in place and equipment configured to disable functions like this. The network must be overseen and monitored by a group of local citizens that set overall policy for usage of the network and verify that the network complies with its rules. It might make sense for the network to be periodically audited by outside parties to ensure compliance. We believe the general rule should be that there must be no proactive monitoring of individual activity on the network, or scanning for suspicious activity.

That said, we realize there may be legitimate reasons for such monitoring, providing it is lawful and limited in scope. For example, if authorities have reason to believe someone in Northampton is downloading child pornography from a known site on the Dark Web, and a court issues a search warrant, the network should have the ability to flag specific traffic to and from those access point listed in the warrant if they access such content. This filtering, however, should be limited in time and scope as well as affect only the suspected access points on the network. This filtering also should require a search warrant issued by a court, not just an order from a government agency or police force.

These rules will need to be worked out and agreed upon when a municipal network is established. We hope our thoughts on this matter will begin and frame a useful conversation if these rules are actually written.

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