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Social WiFi Sign-In: Benefits With A Dark Side

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.