In return for these free access points, the local ISPs permanently branded their Wi-Fi as ‘powered by Facebook.’
But it is the software in the access points that has raised eyebrows among many in the ISP community.
Nearly all of the world’s Wi-Fi access points are sourced from one of two market leaders: Microtiq and Ubiquiti, and come with an operating system, called firmware.
When Facebook set out to source the equipment for thousands of access points, it made a purchase from Ubiquiti on condition that it would be allowed to insert its own software, or, as one industry insider described it, ‘little black box’, into each access point.
Facebook did not divulge the nature or purpose of the insertion, and Ubiquiti refused to insert it. Facebook then went to the lesser known supplier Cambrian, which agreed to insert the black box into the access points.
The potential loss of sales then forced Ubiquiti to follow suit and agree to the insertion.
Thus, the Wi-Fi Express access points — paid for, but not operated by Facebook — have now been rolled out to thousands of hotspots, at bus stations, markets, and meeting areas.Ordinarily, ISPs must always have the capacity to extract data from any Internet access point on a court order.
For this reason, the standard firmware enables website blocking and access to user browsing records and to substantial user data.
In Kenya, many, but not all, ISPs supply this user data to the authorities on request, although some refuse to pass on users’ data unless served by a court order.
Facebook normally only receives all the data entered by Facebook members via Facebook, which accounts for around 20 per cent of most ISP’s data. Thus, the additional purpose of Facebook’s black boxes in the access points it has provided is being viewed by some as deeply worrying.