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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Social WiFi Sign-In: Benefits With A Dark Side

Providing social networking credentials to get free WiFi access gives merchants a wealth of customer data for marketing and is a boon for managed service providers. But is the price too high for customers?

To say that worlds are colliding in the network space is a gross understatement. Take social WiFi. When social networking credentials are used to sign in to wireless networks, lots of wheels are set in motion. Users get WiFi access, merchants reap customer data for fine-tuned marketing, and integrators can expand their services.

At the same time, social WiFi sign-in raises many unsettling privacy concerns. Let's take a look at the upside -- and downside -- of this fast-growing trend in the wireless world.

Not so long ago, those of us who run wireless networks didn't have a lot of options when it came to providing wireless guest access. The de facto standard required "an insider" to provide guest login credentials to our visitors. Some of us developed our own self-sponsor mechanisms that gave guests a way to get on without our help while providing some data point for us to track should trouble arise, such as a cellphone number to text a user's password. Once connected, guests went about their business, while administrators collected only enough logs to report on network utilization.

Now, with social WiFi, you use your Twitter or Facebook account to log in to a public wireless hotspot. Though "public wireless hotspots" might belong to single mom-and-pop establishments, they are frequently counted by the hundreds or thousands for chain establishments and thus rise to "distributed enterprise" status. Social WiFi is at home in settings of all sizes, where users want to connect to free WiFi and save their data minutes while they shop, eat, and socialize. And this is where things get interesting.

AirTight Networks has led the charge into social WiFi guest access, bundling it into a subscription along with retail analytics, wireless PCI compliance, and various managed services options. Here's the idea: You go to a local local AirTight-provisioned environment and log in to local guest WiFi with your Facebook credentials. In exchange for free wireless, you enter a technical and business arrangement that permits the wireless provider to gather your data for marketing purposes.

Your account settings and personal data are culled and used to enhance your experience with personalized coupon offers and faster service. Merchants tailor their products and promotions based on what they learn about you, and AirTight's managed services partners find a new revenue stream in monthly plan fees.

In some ways, everyone wins with social WiFi. Merchants get a lot of bang for their marketing and social media bucks; they run ads on Facebook and see how you respond when on the premises. They pipe background music selections based on your past Spotify selections. They see what age/gender demographics are trending well and which ones require a new marketing strategy. Customers get free WiFi plus a personalized shopping experience.

At the same time, integrators can stretch their services. Social WiFi moves them beyond simply providing access to wireless clients and gets them into the business of retail analytics and social media marketing, along with cloud services and PCI compliance.

It's a new day for wireless networking, but no IT paradigm is without tradeoffs. As innocuous as signing into guest wireless with social media credentials sounds, the implications are many and concerning. Yes, we live in an age where we're hyper-sensitive to privacy, yet many of us put it all out there on our social media accounts. As strange as it seems, despite the wide-open nature of our social media personas, we still expect a modicum of control over how our information gets used.

Social WiFi undercuts that odd, fragile handle we have on our social media data to monetize and upsell us in ways that don't make me really comfortable. Once the data is mined and conclusions are drawn from it, we become new people in the eyes of the social WiFi provider, with no control over how the process presents us.

We become scrutinized, and perhaps all our contacts are also scrubbed. Then, whatever package of information comes out of the process ends up living in dark corners of the provider realm that aren't familiar to us. I'm not sure whether or how often this information might get sold, which is one aspect of the whole consumer analytics process that I've never heard explained or defended to my liking. In the end, I'm not keen on signing away the mineral rights to my social environment for free WiFi and a desert coupon.

Social WiFi is interesting, innovative, and, for some businesses, potentially profitable. But for customers, this WiFi may come at too high a price.

Lee is a Network Engineer and Wireless Technical Lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administrtaion, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronc Warfare ... View Full Bio
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matthewnorwood
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matthewnorwood,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/8/2014 | 11:36:30 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
You are right Keith. It probably should be free. Well, at least give the appearance of it being free to the end user. You mentioned escalators and bathrooms which are generally free, but there is a cost of those things baked into the business somewhere. That escalator, elevator, air conditioning, bathroom, etc is being paid for by the cost of the goods being sold to whomever is buying. They just don't put it in its own little cell on the spreadsheet, but it is baked in somewhere. I'm okay with that. If providing "free Wi-Fi" means you charge me a nickel more for whatever I am buying, do it. Just don't itemize it on a receipt like rental car companies tend to do with all their charges.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/8/2014 | 10:32:26 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Thanks for sharing that link Brian. Frederico's Kickstarter project makes a good point about how companies profit from our personal data, and highlights their ridiculous terms of service. 
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/8/2014 | 11:20:21 AM
Re: Privacy and Security
Good point about the security issue Dale. People need to be aware of the security risks often associated with public Wi-Fi hot spots and not assume they're secure. Security experts have long warned of the risk of eavesdroppers.
MarciaNWC
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MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/8/2014 | 11:12:21 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
I agree, Keith's comments are really enlightening. Wi-Fi always seems like some precious service that I'm lucky to get when I'm at the airport, etc. The WLAN vendors appear to have been very successful with their ROI arguments. Hopefully things will change.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/8/2014 | 8:48:03 AM
Re: Privacy and Security
I am a little late to this discussion, but agree with you Dale, and with Lee as well. Dale pointed out that most of the time people don't actually read the user agreement, and many times users may not understand what are agreeing to. Or, the company does not actually have a long-term plan for how they are going to deal with the data they are collecting, as Lee alluded to in the article. 

I also think the problem is escalated here because we're dealing with social networks that often contain huge amounts of personal data, coupled with access to mobile devices. If that becomes aggregated in a data warehouse and resold, it could be far more than an annoyance.
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Strategist
5/8/2014 | 8:36:25 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Keith, thanks so much for your comments. It's really refreshing to hear your point of view. I know in my own experience I don't think of WiFi as a public service or a necessary part of a building like an escalator. I think of it like something the owner is providing to me as a favor, and I feel guilty when I use it. Like when I sit at Starbucks and work for a few minutes, I feel bad for sucking up their spectrum. I don't think I'm that unusual, and that's why companies get away with their demands. We need more people like you advocating for WiFi rights and changing that mindset!
dalerapp
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dalerapp,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/8/2014 | 8:29:30 AM
Privacy and Security
Great article Lee and while I'm not a privacy freak I tend to stay more on the privacy side of the fence and I agree with you that handing over social network data for free Wi-Fi is not something I feel comfortable with doing. I don't blame the b&m stores for using this approach to catch up with the online retailers to market and advertise their products to customers. I assume, and that anyone actually reads the user agreement, but during the sign on processes a user agreement stating what data the retailer is capturing and what they do with the data and how long it is stored on their servers is explained? Also, and some people may think this exchange prior to joining the Wi-Fi network is creating a secure connection when in reality the network is unencrypted and communications are in the clear!

Thanks, Dale
KeithRParsons
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KeithRParsons,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/8/2014 | 12:56:33 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Wi-Fi can be Fast, Free, and Easy - there is more than enough justification for businesses to give it away like they do escalators, elevators, security guards, bathrooms, janitor services, etc. 

Only if the WLAN vendors and sales folks would quit relying on the old ROI argument to try and make the sales easier.

So YES, you can have free Wi-Fi. 
KeithRParsons
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KeithRParsons,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/8/2014 | 12:52:55 AM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
There ARE lots of 'free lunches' available. You don't pay to ride an escalator at a mall, or an elevator in an office building, or pay to deposit your trash in a garbage can. Yet all of those items have both CapEx and OpEx costs - somehow the owners of the buildings can pay for those amenities and give them to their customers and the public for free.

We do NOT have to fall for this ruse to think Wi-Fi is somehow "special" and its costs are magically higher and have more value than any of the other public services that are magically paid for and delivered to the public for free!

Wi-Fi does have both CapEx and OpEx costs to provide Internet access - but it is NOT any different or have any more value. We are not forced to watch a 30-second advertisement every time we walk in a lobby with a security guard... so why with public Wi-Fi?

My conjecture it is the greed and laziness of those who manufacture and sell these Wi-Fi products - it makes their job easier to convince business owners to buy their products because they have an ROI chart to show payback on the CapEx.

Somehow escalator sales haven't plummeted because of a lack of direct ROI per rider...

Don't be fooled into thinking Wi-Fi is somehow more "special" than those other public services!
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 10:53:04 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Marica, good point, a lot is dependent upon whether the customer feels if the price is fair (or not) that is being offered for their data or time. A 30-second ad video seems to be a fair price for (maybe) 15 minutes of wifi-access while in a store. There are individuals like Federico Zannier that have managed to sell their personal data for $2,733, however, I feel that the novelty effect is the dominate factor that caused his data to be valued so high, in the end we might never know exactly how much value does our data hold, just estimates.
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