• 05/07/2014
    8:00 AM
    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.


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.

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.



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.

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.



Re: Privacy concerns

I am with you and there is a fine line that needs to be maintained by a business that uses data to market their products to consumers. For example, there have been instances where tobacco companies have been deliberately placing their products at the eye-level of kids, under the assumption that kids can be converted into lifelong customers fairly easily. Whether this assumption is right or wrong, it does illustrate that demographic data could be used to cause harm. 

On the other hand, businesses and the economy as a whole, needs to match supply and demand through the most efficient channel that is available, not doing so results in the wastage of capital resources in the economy. I don't consider this as a form of marketing, I feel that often times when businesses use the word "Targeting", they simple mean, locating the demand for their service, and the more specialized a service or product is, the more data is needed to locate this demand.


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

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.

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.

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. 

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!

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!

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.

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. 

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.

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Matthewnorwood, it's great to see you here -- thanks for stopping by :)

I think maybe we are in a transitional phase, and there will be businesses (like cafes and hotels) that do build wireless into the price of their goods and services, while others think of it as a luxury. I'm guessing it will depend on the goals of each business and what they are delvering and they expect from their customers, though. If a place doesn't have a bathroom, will it really spring for free wifi?

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Thanks Susan. I lurk far more often than I post, but this article intrigued me, and the comments even more so. :)

I never underestimate a business' ability to charge for every little thing possible. I think it is a misguided viewpoint that plenty of companies(tech especially) have. They think they can nickel and dime the customer. It gets annoying after a while, and eventually the customer ends up going somewhere else that doesn't do that. I would rather pay more up front and not have to worry about making a dozen different small transactions to get what I want.

Quick story regarding bathrooms. My wife was shopping in a local toy store several years back and my son, who was about 3 or 4 at the time, had to use the bathroom. The toy store didn't allow guests to use their bathroom. My wife never set foot in that store again.

It all comes down to knowing your customer and what their needs are. Not to beat a dead horse, but if you are selling toys, there is a good chance there will be lots of kids in your store. The average child does not have the same sized bladder as a grown adult. Every single parent on the planet knows this truth, and yet a small retailer couldn't figure that out.

If you know your customers will use Wi-Fi, provide it. How much does an AP and a local Internet connection cost? Not a lot in the grand scheme of things. it doesn't even have to be Enterprise grade. I've seen lots of cheap consumer AP's work just fine in small retailers. Trying to get me to pay for it means I probably won't be back. If loitering is a concern, there are other ways to deal with that. Fast food chains are the kings of uncomfortable seats. They do that for a reason, and it isn't just so they can wipe it down easier.

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

In response to matthewnorwood, we at AirTight *would not* recommend a consumer grade AP in a business environment, especially in a retail setting subject to PCI compliance requirements. Improperly configured, consumer-grade APs are an attack vector. We hear a lot about the big data breaches, but many more smaller ones occur on a daily basis. Often that means that a small business in question simply shuts down - they don't have the resources to cover the fines and the mitigation required. 

This is a great topic, which many people are passionate or curious about. Social Wi-Fi is changing the way integrators and retail/restautant/hospitality are doing busines, so naturally many questions come up.

We've followed up with a couple of blog posts on the topic:

What is Driving Free Guest Wi-Fi?



Social Wi-Fi and Privacy: Keeping Balance in the Force


Comments on the topic are welcome! 

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

I think you may have misinterpreted my stance on this. :) I never said that I would drop a cheap AP onto a network serving POS(Point of Sale) systems used by retail outlets. I was just making the point that a cheap broadband connection and a cheap AP can serve small locations just fine. The cost associated with that is simply paying the monthly cable/DSL bill. I am not advocating internal and guest traffic sharing the same Wi-Fi on an AP you would buy at the local brick and mortar retailer(e.g. Best Buy, Target, WalMart).

Small stores don't usually have the technical and financial means to support any sort of wireless infrastructure. If we are talking about a more structured company, that is a different story. The Taco Bell about 2 miles down the road from my house has an AirTight AP right above the cash registers. I am pretty sure that the decision made around that platform was done up in Louisville,KY where the parent company is located. They would have staff that could maintain that type of equipment, whereas a smaller independent retailer would not. The company I work for, which sells for Aerohive, Aruba, and Cisco when it comes to wireless, would not even deal with a small independent retailer since it would cost too much for our services and the amount of money you make selling a single AP isn't worth the effort required to implement it properly(security, coverage/capacity planning, etc).

It always comes down to cost for the smaller retailers, and I don't think a lot of them are interested in paying more than $100 for an AP. They also don't have the time and/or expertise to ensure that system is running the proper security required for PCI compliance.

We're looking at two different kinds of buyers here. There are the kind that buy from you and use VAR's like my employer, and the kind that think Linksys and Netgear are good enough for their customers to check e-mail and browse the web. Of course, I could be wrong. For all I know, there are tons of "mom and pop" retailers with cloud-managed AP's. I just think the majority of the smaller ones would consider the cost of that to be too much just to offer free Wi-Fi to customers.

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

matthewnorwood, yes, Taco Bell was a brand-wide deployment for AirTight, managed by the central IT organization in Louisville, KY. 

But further to the discussion, I'm quite certain that one of the input's into Lee Badman's story was AirTight's case study on the deployments in McAllen TX by our partner Frontera Consulting

The point of the story was that enterprise-grade Wi-Fi with integrated analytics and social media *is* now avaialble to mom-and-pop stores (in Frontera's example, it was husband-and-wife team who own SALT: New American Table and house. wine & bistro), through savvy integrators such as Frontera. 

Frontera charges $399 to 699 *monthly* for their social media management service + Wi-Fi. I was surprised at how hight these numbers were, but that's what nation-wide social media agencies charge retail business for managing their social media presence. 

For the same money, Frontera's customers get not only a social media management service, but also AirTight's guest Wi-Fi, retail analytics, social sign-in, and wireless PCI compliance – all from a single provider, with local support.

Frontera in turn gets monthly recurring revenues, and expects that by the end of the year, this new service will account for 20% of all of their service revenues. This would represent 20 percent compound monthly growth rate (CMGR), vs nine per cent CMGR for their traditional services and four percent for their integration business. 

My point is that enterprise-grade, secure Wi-Fi, social integration and analytics service is indeed accessible to small independent retailers through innovative resellers, and is advantageous for both. 

You can check out the full story here: 

Social Wi-Fi and Analytics Deliver Dividends for Local Businesses 


Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Just a reminder- this is not an AirTight advertising board- starting to stretch the bounds of good taste.

"Frontera in turn gets monthly recurring revenues, and expects that by the end of the year, this new service will account for 20% of all of their service revenues. This would represent 20 percent compound monthly growth rate (CMGR), vs nine per cent CMGR for their traditional services and four percent for their integration business."

So now integrators "own" large amounts of customer data? And this shouldn't concern anyone? How well do you know your integrator? What qualifies someone to be an integrator? The add campaigns around social media- including by AirTight- always lead with how flippin' much money everyone makes off this great new model, and puts little importance on the client end. We're not talking about privacy of individual clients- we're talking about aggregated data sets in lots of new hands. With all of the great new revenue being made here in this "everyone wins" model, clients should be getting paid to use the Wi-Fi. 

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Thanks for bringing the discussion back to the important issues you raised in your blog post Lee. So much aggragated data in a third-party's hands is a major concern.

Re: No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

Well I am glad to know you have been lurking! The bathroom thing also irks me. My kids are old enough to fend for themselves now, but my I find myself often hunting for a restroom for my husband, who apparently drinks far to much beer for the size of his bladder ;)

And sometimes I am amazed at the places where WiFi is not available. Recently I had a late flight leaving a conference, so I decided to just hang out in the convention center after the show and get some work done. Wrong -- once the conference folks cleared out, there was no Internet service, so I had to head to the airport, where the service was terrible. That didn't work out so well.

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: 


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. 

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.

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 :)

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.

Re: Keeping balance in the Force

I think it's fair to say that enterprise Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly more affordable. Although I still see generally that IT budgets remain thin, and if you throw in the tight margins of most retail/restaurant/hospitality groups then even sub-$500 can be a stretch depending on how you view Wi-Fi culturally. I feel like many in this space see Wi-Fi as "that thing everyone else has so I guess we have to get it too" and that can be a hard pill to swallow. 

But despite that I agree with you - it's a poor argument and not one that will ensure you get your hands on the best solution possible. It's a much better argument to recognize the growth in mobility, connectivity, social media use and the need to be dynamic and engaging with your customer base when looking for a Wi-Fi network that has the possibility of being used by that same customer base (in addition to all the in-house needs as well). If other business units outside of IT have stake in the system (and thus ownership in its success) then sub-$500 can be a real steal.

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

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.

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.

Re: Privacy concerns

Thanks, that's great to hear! Let us know if there are any other topics you'd be interested in reading about on the site.