Wi-Fi for Developing World
Hits Privacy Snag

Wi-Fi for Developing World Hits Privacy Snag

The Facebook service was mining data from non-users, raising concerns about the platform’s intentions and disclosure.

Troy Farah

In its continuing search for new users and ways to connect them, Facebook recently moved to better serve developing countries through its Express Wi-Fi app. 

Users can purchase data packs to connect to nearby hotspots in places such as Indonesia, India, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tanzania—countries that don’t always have robust internet infrastructure. The updated Android app, which currently works only in Indonesia and Kenya, enables higher online speeds, and it no longer requires users to reconfigure their phones. 

The app-store version of Express Wi-Fi is not only easier to find than the previous manual download, but it also makes it less complicated to find local Wi-Fi hotspots. Before, this required either downloading a slow-loading app from a local telecom, or using a mobile browser to directly access Express Wi-Fi, according to The Verge. However, this access may come at some cost to privacy: according to an April 2018 Business Daily report, the overall Express Wi-Fi service in Kenya has been gathering personal data not just of Facebook users, but also non-users who access the network’s hotspots. 

This is another potential PR headache for Facebook, after data-mining consultancy Cambridge Analytica was infamously caught repurposing Facebook data to attempt to influence elections in the United States. Cambridge Analytica also reportedly used that data to influence more than 200 other elections across the world—including in several countries where Express Wi-Fi is deployed, according to Kenya’s Daily Nation.

 For its part, Facebook claims that the data collected for all hotspot users has to do with providing better service and cleaner accounting. Understandably, some users in affected countries are skeptical. Making online access easier for all seems like a positive goal, but clearly even major platforms have a ways to go when it comes to transparency and trust.