The Digital Divide: Homeless Hawk Mobile Hotspots @ SXSW

Some things are just naturally great together. Baseball and hotdogs. Strawberries and chocolate. Popcorn and  movies.

But  mobile hotspots hawked by homeless guys at SXSW? Not so much.

On the surface, it seems like a great idea. Homeless people have been given a chance to make some money this week at the music industry’s premier annual conference in Austin, Texas. They’re carrying mobile hotspot devices around at events while wearing T-shirts inviting people to connect by texting a number printed on the T-shirt.

It’s one of those ideas I want to love because it’s a simple and ingenious solution to a gnarly technical problem–too many people in one place competing for limited mobile bandwidth–but it just creeps me out because it seems so wrong on a couple of different levels.

Here’s why.

While the homeless hotspot hawkers are making $2 for every mobile connection; the idea that they’re making money by catering to  expensive gadget-wielding, beer guzzling, deal-making, music industry insiders just rubs me the wrong way.

Don’t get me wrong–I have no kick against entrepreneurship, an honest days work, or SXSW. I attended the conference several years ago, and I really enjoyed it. What bugs me is the stark contrast between the haves and have-nots staring at one of the other across the digital divide. They’re sharing bandwidth; but not an equal shot at good fortune and a decent night’s sleep in a comfortable bed.

Even more than that, what’s really disturbing is the potentially enormous security risk that everyone faces when they hook into  unsecured mobile hotspots with devices that are treasure troves of information that could be very profitably hacked by criminals and others with nefarious intent.

Consider the story posted on a few days ago about a gadget called a “hotspot honeypot”. It is a mobile device that allows someone to intercept your Wi-Fi connection, and hack your phone or computer. This kind of sophisticated interceptor sounds like something straight out of a James Bond movie; but it’s actually on the market today for under $100.

Awesome if you’re a hacker; really sucky if you’re hacked.

I’m not suggesting that the homeless people who are wandering around SXSW right now offering Wi-Fi hotspot connections are hackers; I’m just pointing out that connecting to an open Wi-Fi connection is a lot more risky than connecting through your own mobile carrier.

After attending several panel discussions on Capitol Hill recently, and after very carefully reviewing testimony offered during two recent US House of Representatives subcommittee hearings on cyber security; I have come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no way that anyone can be too careful these days.

It doesn’t matter what kind of device you’re using. Even high level internet security gurus are saying that these are scary times; cyber attacks are on the rise; and the best thing that even advanced security providers can do is mitigate risk–not prevent it.

Check out my blog posts on the congressional hearings, and click on the embedded links for more information.

SXSW is a truly amazing music industry event that provides a wonderful opportunity for independent and new artists to meet and make deals with influential music industry insiders who could possibly help advance their careers. It’s also a great place to have a good time, and to have a lot of fun.

I would suggest that if you want  to keep it a good time; just exercise some care in the way that you use your mobile devices. There’s no way that you’re ever going to be 100% safe; but hooking up to a roving mobile hotspot which may or may not be secure,  is somewhat akin to a dangerous liaison with a hot stranger you just met in a crowded bar….lots of fun ’till you wake up missing your wallet the morning after.


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