Unlocking Wi-Fi Encryption during Disaster Response Operation: Implications for Privacy and Information Security

Responding to natural disasters has always been a very difficult and compassionate task. This is especially so when there are high death toll and colossal damage to property as recently witnessed in the 6.2 magnitude earthquake that struck central Italy and killed close to 300 people.[1] As always, on-the-ground activities are necessary for such emergencies, involving civil protection agencies, humanitarian organizations, and volunteers who quickly engage in search and rescue activities as well as other physical assistances to the victims and their community. But sometimes despite these rapid disaster response efforts, telecommunications breakdown can undermine humanitarian activities as seen, for instance, in Haiti in 2010.[2] The ability of the response team to communicate and use ICT devices is usually vital in the aftermath of a disaster and the impact of ICTs at such point cannot be overlooked. In some cases, the deployment of ICTs is indispensable, ranging from the use of drones to the activation of Facebook’s Safety Check and other online activities such as crowdsourcing and mapping of real-time information.

The recent earthquake in Italy, however, brings this to a new dimension: in the course of the response operations, the Italian Red Cross posted a message on its Twitter account asking residents within the affected locations to unlock their Wi-Fi network, including a step-by-step guide on how they can switch off their Wi-Fi network encryption.[3] The aim of this action is to facilitate communications and rescue operations, and this request was retweeted 3039 times at the time of this writing. A similar request was reportedly made by the Italian National Geological Association and Lazio Region.[4] It is noteworthy that this is not the first scenario that such a call had been made during a disaster response operation ...

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