Project Warwalk: The Digital Divide

This is it! This is the last planned post for our research series Project Warwalk. This article will touch on the digital divide and will bring in topics discussed in the last publication, which you can find here. For those just finding this series, you can catch up here as well as access the glossary for any terms you're not familiar with.

In this article we’re going to start with talking about the digital divide and then we’ll be focusing on access to WiFi in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Merriam-Webster definition of the digital divide is

"The economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not."   [Source: Merriam-Webster]

Last year, Pew Research Center published an article in May, 2019, discussing the numbers associated with people affected by the digital divide, despite those classified as lower-income making some gains. These findings are before COVID-19. For a more detailed look, you can find the article in the source link below the bullet points. We’re only going to highlight a few of their findings to give you a sense of what the gap is like.

  • Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone.”
  • More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44%) or a traditional computer (46%).”
  • ...a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.”
  • Higher-income Americans are also more likely to have multiple devices that enable them to go online. Roughly two-thirds of adults living in high-earning households (64%) have home broadband services, a smartphone, a desktop or laptop computer and a tablet, compared with 18% of those living in lower-income households.”
  • As of early 2019, 26% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent” internet users – meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home.”
  • In 2015, 35% of lower-income households with school-age children did not have a broadband internet connection at home, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data."

[Source: Anderson, Monica and Kumar, Madhumitha. "Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoptions.", Pew Research Center, Last accessed Sept. 10, 2020]

At the time of this, the COVID-19 pandemic is still here, and schools, by now, are in session, either distance learning, in class, or a mix of both. In a publication by Common Sense Media, they report that there are 15 to 16 million students across the U.S. that don’t have “adequate internet access or computing devices to facilitate distance learning.” [Source: Common Sense Media.  " K–12 Student Digital Divide Much Larger Than Previously Estimated and Affects Teachers, Too, New Analysis Shows.", Common Sense Media Last accessed on Sept. 15, 2020]

Common Sense, in partnership with Boston Consulting Group, also found that about 10% of teachers fall into the digital divide too, lacking proper access to technology that affect their ability to teach their classes remotely. This equates to roughly 300,000 to 400,000 teachers. [Source: Common Sense Media.  " K–12 Student Digital Divide Much Larger Than Previously Estimated and Affects Teachers, Too, New Analysis Shows.", Common Sense Media Last accessed on Sept. 15, 2020]

At the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, forty-seven states, and D.C. closed their schools. This affected roughly 55 million kids. It’s estimated that at least 124,000 public and private schools closed, or were in the process of closing to help stop the spread of COVID-19 [Source: Turner-Lee, Nicol.  "How parking a wireless school bus can help all students get back to school.", The Hill, Last accessed on September 15, 2020]

As a result of this, schools have repurposed their school buses into mobile public WiFi access points and sent to under served communities to provide Internet access.

Let’s talk about this effort and some of the things schools need to think about.

From a geographic standpoint, weather is a factor. As we’re approaching Fall and Winter, how is accessing these mobile wireless access points going to affect students if the schools go into another shutdown? What restrictions are there for students using the bus? With some WiFi access points having a range of roughly 45m(100ft) to 91m(300ft) are there students that have a way to not be exposed to the elements while doing their school work? For mobile WiFi access points that have ranges that might result in signal bleed into neighboring buildings/houses, what are they using to monitor access to the network and prevent abuse of resources or the spread of malware?

As we brought up in our post about issues with WiFi at home one of the things that affects wireless signals is an area saturated with WiFi access points. This can cause slow internet speeds and connection failures. Also, the more people on the access point, the more bandwidth is used, which also causes slow internet speeds and connection failures. It’s an unintended Denial of Service attack.

As seen with our own research at the beginning of this series, we certainly encountered many access points with weak/deprecated security or no protection for network connected devices. Naturally we were curious. So where does one turn to see if these mobile WiFi access points have adequate protection? Social media.

We ran some searches to observe what was posted about these WiFi access points. Below are what we witnessed posted publicly:

  • Social media post, with a setting of public, to include SSID name and password.
  • Social media post, with a setting of public, to include SSID name and no password needed.
  • Social media post, with a setting of public, where the SSID name and password are the same for all buses.
  • Social media post, with a setting of public, where the password is static and doesn’t change on either a daily or weekly basis.
  • Social media post, with a setting of public, and the password is changed weekly.
  • Social media post, with a setting of public, and a person needs to contact tech support/admin to get login information. Contact information such as email address or phone is provided in the post.
  • Parents posting to social media, with a setting of public, where a photo is uploaded of the bus WiFi login credentials.

Of these methods, the more secure one is having to email, or call, someone in the school district’s tech support group or an administrator to get the login credentials. This may deter people who aren’t associated with a school from attempting to get access to one of these wireless access points.

The least secure behavior is having no password at all. To add to this, from our own bias, is that these SSIDs and passwords shouldn’t be posted to social media by the school, parents, or students for all to see. We also observed some social media posts, pre-COVID-19, where the school WiFi passwords are shared publicly. We do understand the need to make things easy for students and parents to access the Internet, however this behavior exposes the school to unnecessary risk.

The next question is how do the schools know who should be on the wireless access point? Are they using some sort of MAC filtering? In one of the social media posts we found one school district was using a vendor called iBoss which provides network security as a service, which includes things like firewalls, malware prevention and, equally important, reporting.

To wrap up this part of the article, seeing how COVID-19 has turned peoples’ worlds upside down, it has shown systemic failures on several fronts, including education. How do we safely provide public WiFi as a public service? How do we make it reliable too?

Going beyond public education, with regard to the digital divide, we are witnessing technology negatively affect people, especially low-income and people of color.

To refer back to Bruce Schneier’s book “Data and Goliath” from our last post, one of the main themes is that the collection of mass quantities of data will divide us based on income, based on education, based on race, and based on zip code, to name a few. It is happening and has been for years.  We recommend watching Yeshimabeit Milner's Keynote presentation for H.O.P.E. 2020.  It is archived here.  The presentation talks about the history of data collection on people who identify as black or brown and how it’s affected their lives. It’s important that we pay attention to the experiences of people who are negatively impacted by a computer algorithm through no fault of their own. They are the ones showing us the faults in the system and what needs to be fixed. Facial recognition is yet another thing that contributes to the digital divide, which we briefly touched upon in the last post.

With artificial intelligence being integrated more and more into applications and hardware, cameras specifically, it is being used in conjunction with facial recognition software. Studies by NIST, the ACLU, and MIT have found facial recognition technology to misidentify gender and race. You can read about these studies here, here , and here. These studies are academic in nature. It’s an entirely different situation when facial recognition misidentifies someone for a crime they did not commit. This was the case for Robert Julian-Borchak Williams, the first person in the United States wrongfully arrested because of a false positive hit with facial recognition technology. Read about his story here. The U.S. House Oversight Committee also has concerns about this technology from the inaccuracies that facial recognition systems currently have to implications for people as the technology improves. [Source: BBC.  "US lawmakers concerned by accuracy of facial recognition.", BBC. Last accessed Sept 15, 2020]

We’ll end this discussion here. Our goal for this article is to bring to light these issues and serve as a space for discussion.

We urge those who want to share their personal experiences, or ideas on how to improve the system for all of us to send a message in our contact form by clicking on this link. You can also send us a DM at