Wireless Infrastructure

08:00 AM
Lee Badman
Lee Badman
Commentary
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

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
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Oldest First  |  Newest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 4   >   >>
MarciaNWC
50%
50%
MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/7/2014 | 11:20:16 AM
Privacy concerns
You raise some really important issues here Lee, and I'm with you on your reluctance to trade so much personal information for free Wi-Fi and a coupon. It's just plain creepy to have merchants tailoring promotions, etc. to a social media profile. And the point you bring up about not knowing where the collected data lives, or whether it's sold, is spot on.
lbadman132
100%
0%
lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 11:43:20 AM
Re: Privacy concerns
Hi Marcia,

I know this is a polarizing, nuanced discussion that centers largely on, but is not alltogether limited to, Oauth. To sign in here on NWC to enter this comment, I was presented with the option to use my social media credentials. The trend is everywhere, but for me the Wi-Fi part of it feels different because their are new tiers to the arrangement. It's not just me and the sites at the other end anymore. With Social WiFi, it's me and the Wi-Fi vendor, and the merchant, and the Integrator and possibly an admin or two in the mix and who knows who else. It just *feels* too loose for me, and all of the marketing on social Wi-Fi is about monitizing the client and new revenue streams. NO ONE that I've seen is talking about how all of that gets done responsibly, with the clients' privacy and interests in mind. It's just all about revenue as if clients were objects and not human beings with their own concerns- albeit highly nuanced concerns given that we all give away a lot anyways. It could be that Social Wi-Fi is actually truly great for everyone, but the message is being horribly botched. I'm a WLAN provider myself and so am interested in anyt and all options. But I'm also a Client of the World of Wireless as I live my life, and to think about being wantonly monitized at every turn (based on the prevailing messages that accompany Social Wi-Fi marketing) makes me really uncomfortable.

-Lee

 
colleen_o_shea
0%
100%
colleen_o_shea,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/7/2014 | 12:02:59 PM
No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
We all want free WiFi, but WiFi isn't free...someone needs to pay for the equipment and the broadband. So as a business, your customers want WiFi, and you have some choices about how you do that. Those include giving it away for free, with no strings attached, give it away for free and use it as a way to grow your customer base, or charge for it. In addition, in some regions like the EU, there are record keeping responsibilities for businesses offering WiFi - so handing the WiFi responsibility to a company who can manage it for you is a welcomed relief to many small -- and larger -- businesses.

As consumers, we have to think hard about whether we're good with sharing our social data with merchants or if the price of sharing is way higher than the free WiFi we get in return. And although we love free, nothing is forcing us to jump on their WiFi network. We have choice.

 

Colleen O'Shea
http://wifitrends.blogspot.com
MarciaNWC
0%
100%
MarciaNWC,
User Rank: Strategist
5/7/2014 | 12:38:06 PM
Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Hi Colleen, you're certainly right, WiFi isn't free and we have choice. One system I prefer is when the WiFi provider offers the option of just watching a short video ad before providing access.
Drew Conry-Murray
50%
50%
Drew Conry-Murray,
User Rank: Strategist
5/7/2014 | 1:11:13 PM
Re: Privacy concerns
I share your concerns about privacy and being marketed to, but it's already happening all over the Internet: every Web site I visit leaves a cookie and tracks my activity. I suppose the social WiFi gets a bit more personal--and thus creepy--because a good tracking system could start marketing to you based on your location (Hey, we noticed you're in the apple sauce aisle. Want a coupon?). But based on how most people behave, I think they'll take the convenience of free WiFi in exchange for more data collection and more marketing.
lbadman132
50%
50%
lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 1:45:53 PM
Re: Privacy concerns
Hi Drew and Colleen,

I don't disagree with either of you. To Colleen's points, it gets iffy when Social Wi-Fi login is the ONLY option, and the only opt-out is to not use. Or, if there is no clarity provided on how your info gets used, and by who (remember, a whole slew of new players now have fingers in the pie). Which brings me around to Drew- again, now you have more tiers of of people involved in both collecting data, orchestrating how it's used, buying and selling it, intrpreting it, and guiding merchants along on the presentation or lack of information on how the whole thing is used. I don't think it's bad per se, but I do think social Wi-Fis being shotgunned out into the WLAN world and all anyone seems to see is dollar signs, and no concern for the client as demonstrated by market slide after market slide.

 

-Lee
blantr0n
50%
50%
blantr0n,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/7/2014 | 1:47:16 PM
Keeping balance in the Force
Perfect timing! Facebook just announced that they will be adding new functionality to their OAuth capabilities which would allow users to access any service using Facebook OAuth anonymously. This is obviously in reaction to the ongoing privacy conversation across the entire Internet spectrum. And it just so happens that we at AirTight released a blog post about it earlier today; we've maintained since its beginnings that Social Wi-Fi should allow an anonymous path for any user who does not want to engage on social media: 

http://blog.airtightnetworks.com/facebook-anonymous-login-social-wi-fi/

I agree that in some cases our social data is not worth the service that is asking for it. And when it comes to Wi-Fi in particular, using social media as a means to enter can seem overbearing to some. But the fact is for others it is perfectly natural. Remember that while mobility is fairly ubiquitous in our society, it very much skews to Millennials who (like myself) are getting older and expanding our interactions beyond school and home. I'd argue that free Wi-Fi and a dessert coupon in exchange for my name, age and city is a pretty sweet deal actually, and I'd be excited to see what other places I frequent often would provide me with tailored experiences instead of generic, seemingly unhelpful ones.

Social Wi-Fi shouldn't use OAuth as a paywall - it should be used as an invitation to share data in exchange for a something that will somehow benefit you. It's part of the new social contract that exists in our Internet world. And if today I am simply interested in offloading onto Free WiFi and not for more dessert, you are absolutely right that I should have a means to use that network anonymously - fortunately AirTight gives you that option inherently. 
lbadman132
50%
50%
lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 1:53:53 PM
Re: Keeping balance in the Force
great info, thanks. But... some of us want simple wireless access, not "experience", and it's not too much to expect that in an age of commoditized WLAN.
blantr0n
50%
50%
blantr0n,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/7/2014 | 1:57:38 PM
Re: Keeping balance in the Force
Oh of course - that's specifically why we made the "Clickthrough" option. It completely bypasses any social media OAuth and plants you on the Wi-Fi network like it was any other basic network. No sign in - no problem :)
lbadman132
50%
50%
lbadman132,
User Rank: Ninja
5/7/2014 | 2:03:37 PM
Re: Keeping balance in the Force
Again, good to know. I'm also skeptical about "recover Wi-Fi costs" argument. With enterprise APs at sub-$500 price points and many locations needing 1 or 2 APs, I think the cost recovery thing is being overplayed as a reson to go this route.
Page 1 / 4   >   >>
Hot Topics
13
Drones: The Next WLAN Menace
Lee Badman 7/22/2014
7
10 Handy WiFi Troubleshooting Tools
Ericka Chickowski, Contributing Writer, Dark Reading,  7/22/2014
White Papers
Register for Network Computing Newsletters
Cartoon
Current Issue
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed