HP Is Buying Aruba. Who’s Next?

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Sometimes all it takes is a little push. Bloomberg reported yesterday that HP is in talks to buy Aruba Networks for their wireless expertise. The deal is contingent upon some other things, and the article made sure to throw up disclaimers that it could still fall through before next week. But the people that I’ve talked to (who are not authorized to comment and wouldn’t know the official answer anyway) have all said this is a done deal. We’ll likely hear the final official confirmation on Monday afternoon, ahead of Aruba’s big Atmosphere (nee Airheads) conference.

R&D Through M&A

This is a shot in the arm for HP. Their Colubris-based AP lineup has been sorely lacking in current generation wireless technology, let alone next gen potential. The featured 802.11ac APs on their networking site are OEMed directly from Aruba. They’ve been hoping to play the OEM game for a while and see where the chips are going to fall. Buying Aruba gives them second place in the wireless market behind Cisco overnight. It also fixes the most glaring issue with Colubris – R&D. HP hasn’t really been developing their wireless portfolio. Some had even thought it was gone for good. This immediately puts them back in the conversation.

More importantly to HP, this acquisition cuts off many of their competitor’s wireless plans at the knees. Dell, Juniper, Brocade, Alcatel Lucent, and many others OEM from Aruba or have a deep partnership agreement. By wrapping up the entirety of Aruba’s business, HP has dealt a blow to the single-source vendors that are playing in the wireless market. And this is going to lead to some big changes relatively soon.

The Startup Buzz

Dell is perhaps the most impacted by this announcement. A very large portion of their wireless offerings were Aruba. They sold APs, controllers, and even ClearPass through their channels (with the names filed off, of course). Now, they are back to square one. How are they going to handle the most recent deals? What are their support options?

I little thought exercise with my friend Josh Williams (@JSW_EdTech) had a few possibilities:

  1. Dell forces HP to buyout all the support contracts for Dell/Aruba customers. That makes sense for Dell, but it will turn a lot of customers against them, especially when HP lets those customers know the reasons why.
  2. Dell agrees to release the developments they’ve done on the platform to HP in return for HP taking the support business. Quiet and clean. Which is why it likely won’t happen.
  3. Dell pays HP an exorbitant amount of money to take the support contracts. This gives HP the capital to take on all those new support contracts and gives Dell an exit to rebuild. This is probably what HP wants, but could end up sinking the deal.

Dell got burned, plain and simple. They likely could have purchased Aruba months ago and solidified the relationship. Instead, they are now looking for a new partner. However, I don’t think they are going to get burned again. Rather than shopping for a friend, they are going to be shopping for an acquisition. My money has always been on Aerohive. They have an existing relationship. The Aerohive controller-less cloud model fits Dell’s new strategies. And they would be a much cheaper pickup than Aruba. There is precedence for Dell skipping the big name and picking up a smaller company that’s a better fit. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it gives Dell the chance to move forward with a lasting relationship.

Softwarely Defined

Brocade is a line-of-business partner of Aruba. They’ve only recently gotten involved since Motorola shut down their WLAN business. This is a good sign for them. That means they can exit from their position and not be significantly affected. It does leave them with a quandary of where to go.

The first choice would be to go back to the Motorola relationship, now in the form of Zebra Technologies. Zebra inherited quite a large portion of the WLAN space from Motorola, but they’ve been keeping rather quiet about it. Are they angling to be more of a support organization for existing installs? Or are they waiting for a big splash announcement to get back in the game? Partnering with Brocade would give them that announcement given the elevated profile Brocade has today.

Brocade’s other option would be to go down the SDN road. The plan for a while has been to embrace SDN, OpenFlow, and all things software defined. The natural target for this would be Meru Networks. Meru has been embracing SDN as well as of late. They had a nice event last year showcasing their advances in SDN. Brocade could bolster that SDN knowledge while obtaining a good wireless company that would give them the strength they need to augment their enterprise business.

Permission To Retire

The odd company out is Juniper. I’ve heard that they were involved at first in trying to acquire Aruba, but when you’re betting against HP’s pockets you will lose in the long run. Their other problem is Elliott Management, everyone’s new favorite “activist investor”.

Elliott has made no secret that they see the value in Juniper in the service provider market. As far back as last year, Elliott has been trying to get Juniper to reave off the ancillary businesses, including security, enterprise, and wireless. Juniper has officially ended sales for Trapeze-based products already. Why would Elliott let them buy another wireless company so soon after getting rid of the last one. Even as successful as Aruba is, Elliott would see it as another distraction. And when someone that active is calling the shots, you can’t go against them, lest you end up unemployed.

This is the end for Juniper’s wireless aspirations. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. This gives them the impetus needed to focus on the service provider market. It also gives them a smaller enterprise switching portfolio to package up and sell off should that pound of flesh be necessary to sate Elliott as well. Time will tell.

Everyone Else

Any other companies with Aruba relationships are either dipping their toes in the wireless waters or don’t care enough to worry about the impact it will have. It will be an easy matter for companies like Alcatel-Lucent to go out and find a new OEM partner, likely with someone like Extreme Networks or Ruckus. Those companies are making great technology and will be happy to supply the APs that customers need. Showing off their technology will also give them great in-roads into customers that might not have been on their radar before.


Tom’s Take

It’s going to be an exciting time in the wireless space. HP’s acquisition is going to start the falling dominoes for other companies to buy into the wireless space as well. When the dust settles, there will be new number twos and number threes in the market. It also clears the middle of the space for up-and-comers to grow. Cisco is going to stay number one for a while, and HP will be number two when this deal closes. But until we see the fallout from who will be purchased and partnered with it’s tough to say who will be a clear winner. But make sure you’ve got your popcorn ready. Because this isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.

 

NBase-ing Your Wireless Decisions

Cat5

Copper is heavy. I’m not talking about it’s atomic weight of 63 or the fact that bundles of it can sag ceiling joists. I’m talking about the fact that copper has inertia. It’s difficult to install and even more difficult to replace. Significant expense is incurred when people want to run new lines through a building. I never really understood how expensive a proposition that was until I went to work for a company that run copper lines.

Out of Mind, Out of Sight

According to a presentation that we saw at Tech Field Day Extra at Cisco Live Milan from Peter Jones at Cisco, Category 5e and 6 UTP cabling still has a significant install base in today’s organizations. That makes sense when you consider that 5e and 6 are the minimum for gigabit Ethernet. Once we hit the 1k mark with speeds, desktop bandwidth never really increased. Ten gigabit UTP Ethernet is never going to take off outside the data center. The current limitations of 10Gig over Cat 6 makes it impossible to use in a desktop connectivity situation. With a practical limit of around 50 meters, you practically have to be on top of the IDF closet to get the best speeds.

There’s another reason why desktop connectivity stalled at 1Gig. Very little data today gets transferred back and forth between desktops across the network. With the exception of some video editing or graphics work, most data is edited in place today. Rather than bringing all the data down to a desktop to make changes or edits, the data is kept in a cloud environment or on servers with ample fast storage space. The desktop computer is merely a portal to the environment instead of the massive editing workstation of the past. If you even still have a desktop at all.

The vast majority of users today don’t care how fast the wire coming out of the wall is. They care more about the speed of the wireless in the building. The shift to mobile computing – laptops, tablets, and even phones, has spurred people to spend as little time as possible anchored to a desk. Even those that want to use large monitors or docking stations with lots of peripherals prefer to connect via wireless to grab things and go to meetings or off-site jobs.

Ethernet has gone from a “must have” to an infrastructure service supporting wireless access points. Where one user in the past could have been comfortable with a single gigabit cable, that new cable is supporting tens of users via an access point. With sub-gigabit technologies like 802.11n and 802.11ac Wave 1, the need for faster connectivity is moot. Users will hit overhead caps in the protocol long before they bump into the theoretical limit for a single copper wire. But with 802.11ac Wave 2 quickly coming up on the horizon and even faster technologies being cooked up, the need for faster connectivity is no longer a pipe dream.

All Your NBase

Peter Jones is the chairman of the NBaseT Alliance. The purpose of this group is to decide on a standard for 2.5 gigabit Ethernet. Why such an odd number? Long story short: It has to do with splitting 10 gigabit PHY connections in fourths and delivering that along a single Cat 5e/6 wire. That means it can be used with existing cable plants. It means that we can deliver more power along the wire to an access point that can’t run on 802.3af power and needs 802.3at (or more). It means we don’t have to rip and replace cable plants today and incur double the costs for new technology.

NBaseT represents a good solution. By changing modulations and pumping Cat 5e and 6 to their limits, we can forestall a cable plant armageddon. IT departments don’t want to hear that more cables are needed. They’ve spent the past 5 years in a tug-of-war between people saying you need 3–4 drops per user and the faction claiming that wireless is going to change all that. The wireless faction won that argument, as this video from last year’s Aruba Airheads conference shows. The idea of totally wireless office building used to be a fantasy. Now it’s being done by a few and strongly considered by many more.

NBaseT isn’t a final solution. The driver for 2.5 Gig Ethernet isn’t going to survive the current generation of technology. Beyond 802.11ac, wireless will jump to 10 Gigabit speeds to support primary connectivity from bandwidth hungry users. Copper cabling will need to be updated to support this, as fiber can’t deliver power and is much too fragile to support some of the deployment scenarios that I’ve seen. NBaseT will get us to the exhaustion point of our current cable plants. When the successor to 802.11ac is finally ratified and enters general production, it will be time for IT departments to make the decision to rip out their old cable infrastructure and replace it with fewer wires designed to support wireless deployments, not wired users.


Tom’s Take

Peter’s talk at Tech Field Day Extra was enlightening. I’m not a fan of the proposed 25Gig Ethernet spec. I don’t see the need it’s addressing. I can see the need for 2.5Gig on the other hand. I just don’t see the future. If we can keep the cable plant going for just a couple more years, we can spend that money on better wireless coverage for our users until the next wave is ready to take us to 10Gig and beyond. Users know what 1Gig connectivity feels like, especially if they are forced down to 100Mbps or below. NBaseT gives them the ability to keep those fast speeds in 802.11ac Wave 2. Adopting this technology has benefits for the foreseeable future. At least until it’s time to move to the next best thing.

Making Your Wireless Guest Friendly

Wireless

During the recent Virtualization Field Day 4, I was located at a vendor building and jumped on their guest wireless network. There are a few things that I need to get accomplished before the magic happens at a Tech Field Day event, so I’m always on the guest network quickly. It’s only after I take care of a few website related items that I settle down into a routine of catching up on email and other items. That’s when I discovered that this particular location blocked access to IMAP on their guest network. My mail client stalled out when trying to fetch messages and clear my outbox. I could log into Gmail just fine and send and receive while I was on-site. But my workflow depends on my mail client. That made me think about guest WiFi and usability.

Be Our (Limited) Guest

Guest WiFi is a huge deal for visitors to an office. We live in a society where ever-present connectivity is necessary. Email notifications, social media updates, and the capability to look up necessary information instantly have pervaded our lives. For those of us fortunate enough to still have an unlimited cellular data plan, our connectivity craving can be satisfied by good 3G/LTE coverage. But for those devices lacking a cellular modem, or the bandwidth to exercise it, we’re forced to relay of good old 802.11a/b/g/n/ac to get online.

Most companies have moved toward a model of providing guest connectivity for visitors. This is far cry from years ago when snaking an Ethernet cable across the conference room was necessary. I can still remember the “best practice” of disabling the passthrough port on a conference room IP phone to prevent people from piggybacking onto it. Our formerly restrictive connectivity model has improved drastically. But while we can get connected, there are still some things that we limit through software.

Guest network restrictions are nothing new. Many guest networks block malicious traffic or traffic generally deemed “unwanted” in a corporate environment, such as Bittorrent or peer-to-peer file sharing protocols. Other companies take this a step further and start filtering out bandwidth consumers and the site associated with them, such as streaming Internet radio and streaming video, like YouTube and Vimeo. It’s not crucial to work (unless you need your cat videos) and most people just accept it and move on.

The third category happens, for the most part, at large companies or institutions. Protocols are blocked that might provide covert communications channels. IMAP is a good example. The popular thought is that by blocking access to mail clients, guests cannot exfiltrate data through that communications channel. Forcing users onto webmail gives the organization an extra line of defense through web filters and data loss prevention (DLP) devices that constantly look for data leakage. Another protocol that is added in this category is IPSec or SSL VPN connections. In these restrictive environments, any VPN use is generally blocked and discouraged.

Overstaying Your Welcome

Should companies police guest wireless networks for things like mail and VPN clients? That depends on what you think the purpose of a guest wireless network is for. For people like me, guest wireless is critical to the operation of my business. I need access to websites and email and occasionally things like SSH. I can only accomplish my job if I have connectivity. My preference would be to have a guest network as open as possible to my needs.

Companies, on the other hand, generally look at guest wireless connectivity as a convenience provided to guests. It’s more like the phone in the lobby by the reception desk. In most cases, that phone has very restricted dialing options. In some companies, it can only dial internal extensions or a central switchboard. In others, it has some capability to dial local numbers. Almost no one gives that phone the ability to dial long distance or international calls. To the company, giving wireless connectivity to guests serves the purpose of giving them web browsing access. Anything more is unnecessary, right?

It’s a classic standoff. How do we give the users the connectivity they need while protecting the network? Some companies create a totally alien guest network with no access to the inside and route all traffic through it. That’s almost a requirement to avoid unnecessary regulatory issues. Others use a separate WAN connection to avoid having the guest network potentially cause congestion with the company’s primary connection.

The answers to this conundrum aren’t going to come easily. But regardless of this users need to know what works and what doesn’t. Companies need to be protected against guest users doing things they aren’t supposed to. How can we meet in the middle?

A Heaping Helping of Our Hospitality

The answer lies in the hospitality industry. Specifically in those organizations that offer tiered access for their customers. Most hotels will give you the option of a free or reduced rate connection that is rate limited or has blocks in place. You can upgrade to the premium tier and unlock a faster data cap and access to things like VPN connections or even public addresses for things like video conferencing. It’s a two-tier plan that works well for the users.

Corporate wireless should follow the same plan. Users can be notified that their basic connectivity has access to web browsing and other essential items, perhaps at a rate limit to protect the corporate network. For those users (like me) that need access to faster network speeds or uncommon protocols like IMAP, you could setup a “premium” guest network that has more restrictive terms of use and perhaps gathers more information about the user before allowing them onto the network. This is also a good solution for vendors or contractors that need access to more of the network that a simple guest solution can afford them. They can use the premium tier with more restrictions and the knowledge that they will be contacted in the event of data exfiltration. You could even monitor this connection more stringently to insure nothing malicious is going on.


Tom’s Take

Guest wireless access is always going be an exercise is balance. You need to give your guests all the access you can without giving them the keys to the kingdom. Companies providing guest access need to adopt a tiered model like that of the hospitality industry to provide the connectivity needed for power users while still offering solutions that work for the majority of visitors. At the very least, companies need to notify users on the splash page / captive portal which services are disabled. This is the best way to let your guests know what’s in store for them.

Wires Are The Exception

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Last week I went to go talk to a group of vocational students about networking.  While I was there, I needed to send a couple of emails.  I prefer to write emails from my laptop, so I pulled it out of my bag between talks and did the first thing that came to mind: I asked for the wireless SSID and password.  Afterwards, I started thinking about how far we’ve come with connectivity.

I can still remember working with a wireless card back in 2001 trying to get the drivers to play nice with Windows 2000.  Now, wireless cards are the rule and wired ports are the exception.  My primary laptop needs a dongle to have a wired port.  My new Mac Mini is happily churning along halfway across the room connected to my network as a server over wireless.  It would appear that the user edge quietly became wireless and no tears were shed for the wire.

It’s also funny that a lot of the big security features like 802.1x and port security became less and less of an issue once open ports started disappearing in common areas.  802.1x for wired connections is barely even talked about now.  It’s more of an authentication mechanism for wireless now.  I’ve even heard some vendors of these solutions touting the advantages of using it with wireless and then throwing in the afterthought comment, “We also made it easy to configured for wired connections too.”

We still need wires, of course.  Access points have to connect to the infrastructure.  Power still can be delivered via microwave.  But the shift toward wireless has made ubiquitous cabling unnecessary.  I used to propose a minimum of four cable drops per room to provide connectivity in a school.  I would often argue for six in case a teacher wanted to later add an IP phone and a couple of student workstations.  Now, almost everything is wireless.  The single wire powers a desk phone and an antiquated desktop.  Progressive schools are replacing the phones with soft clients and the desktops with teach laptops.

The wire is not in any danger of becoming extinct.  But it is going to be relegated to the special purpose category.  Wires will only live behind the scenes in data centers and IDF closets.  They will be the thing that we throw in our bag for emergencies, like an extra console cable or a VGA adapter.

Wireless is the future.  People don’t walk into a coffee shop and ask, “Hey, where’s the Ethernet cable?” Users don’t crowd around wall plates with hubs to split the one network drop into four or eight so they can plug their tablets in.  Companies like Aruba Networks recognized this already when they started posing questions about all-wireless designs.  We even made a video about it:

While I don’t know that the all-wireless design is going to work, I can say with certainty that the only wires that will be running across your desktop soon will be power cables and the occasional USB cord.  Ethernet will be relegated to the same class as electrical wires connected to breaker boxes and water pipes.  Important and unseen.

Maybe MU-MIMO Matters

Wireless

As 802.11ac becomes more widely deployed in environments I find myself looking to the next wave and the promise it brings.  802.11ac Wave 1 for me really isn’t that groundbreaking.  It’s an incremental improvement on 802.11n.  Wave 1 really only serves to wake up the manufacturers to the fact that 5 GHz radios are needed on devices now.  The real interesting stuff comes in Wave 2.  Wider channels, more spatial streams, and a host of other improvements are on the way.  But the most important one for me is MU-MIMO.

Me Mi Mo Mum

Multi-user Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MU-MIMO) is a huge upgrade over the MIMO specification in 802.11n.  MIMO allowed access points to multiplex signals on different channels into one data stream.  It accomplished this via Spatial Division Multiplexing (SDM).  This means that more antennas on an access point are a very good thing.  It increases the throughput above and beyond what could be accomplished with just a single antenna.  But it does have a drawback.

Single-user MIMO can only talk to one client at a time.  All the work necessary to multiplex those data streams require the full attention of a single access point for the period in time that the client is transmitting.  That means that crowded wireless networks can see reduced throughput because of shorter transmit windows.  And what wireless network isn’t crowded today?

MU-MIMO solves this problem by utilizing additional antenna capacity to transmit multiple data streams at once.  If you have spare antennas, you can send another data stream.  The AP then takes the multiple streams and stitches them back together.  This means an effective increase in throughput for certain devices even though the signal strength isn’t as high (thanks to FCC power limits).  Here’s a great video from Wireless Field Day 7 that explains the whole process:

What I found most interesting in this video is two-fold.  First, MU-MIMO is of great benefit to client devices that don’t have the maximum number of spatial streams.  Laptops are going to have three stream and four stream cards, so their MU-MIMO benefit is minimal.  However, the majority of devices on the market using wireless are mobile.  Tablets and phones don’t have multiple spatial streams, usually just one (or in some cases two).  They do this to improve battery life.  MU-MIMO will help them out considerably.

The second takeaway is that devices without a high number of receive chains will make the AP do more work.  That’s because the AP has to process the transmit stream and prevent the extra streams from being transmitted toward the wrong client.  That’s going to incur processing power.  That means you’ll need an AP with a lot of processing power.  Or a control system that can crunch those numbers for you.

When you consider that a large number of APs in a given system are sitting idle for a portion of the time it would be nice to be able to use that spare capacity for MU-MIMO processing.  In addition, having those extra antennas available to help with MU-MIMO sounding would be nice too.  There’s already been some work done on the research side of things.  Maybe we’ll soon see the ability to take the idle processing power of a wireless network and use it to boost the client throughput as needed.


 

Tom’s Take

Wireless never ceases to amaze me.  When I started writing this article, I thought I knew how MU-MIMO worked.  Thankfully, Cisco set me straight at Wireless Field Day 7.  MU-MIMO is going to help clients that can’t run high-performance networking cards.  The kinds of clients that are being sold as fast as possible today.  That means that the wireless system is already being developed to support a new kind of wireless device.

A device that doesn’t have access to limitless power from a wall socket or a battery that lasts forever.  There’s been talk of tablets with increased spatial streams for a while, but the cruel mistress of battery life will always win in the end.  That’s why MU-MIMO matters the most. Because if the wireless device can’t get more powerful, maybe it’s time for the wireless network to do the heavy lifting.

Don’t Track My MAC!

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The latest technology in mobile seems to be identification.  It has nothing to do with credentials.  Instead, it has everything to do with creating a database of who you are and where you are.  Location-based identification is the new holy grail for marketing people.  And the privacy implications are frightening.

Who Are You?

The trend now is to get your device MAC address and store it in a database.  This allows the location tracking systems, like Aruba Meridian or Cisco CMX, to know that they’ve seen you in the past.  They can see where you’ve been in the store with a resolution of a couple of feet (much better than GPS).  They now know which shelf you are standing in front of.  Coupled with new technologies like Apple iBeacon, the retailer can push information to your mobile device like a coupon or a price comparison with competitors.

It’s a fine use of mobile technology.  Provided I wanted that in the first place.  The model should be opt-in.  If I download your store’s app and connect to your wifi then I clicked the little “agree” box that allows you to send me that information.  If I opt-in, feel free to track me and email me coupons.  Or even to pop them up on store displays when my device gets close to a shelf that contains a featured item.  I knew what I was getting into when I opted in.  But what happens when you didn’t?

Wifi, Can You Hear Me?

The problem comes when the tracking system is listening to devices when it shouldn’t be. When my mobile device walks into a store, it will start beaconing for available wifi access points.  It will interrogate them about the SSIDs that they have and whether my device has associated with them.  That’s the way wifi works.  You can’t stop that unless you shut off your wireless.

If the location system is listening to the devices beaconing for wifi, it could be enabled to track those MAC addresses that are beaconing for connectivity even if they don’t connect.  So now, my opt-in is worthless.  If the location system knows about my MAC address even when I don’t connect, they can push information to iBeacon displays without my consent.  I would see a coupon for a camping tent based on the fact that I stood next to the camp stoves last week for five minutes.  It doesn’t matter that I was on a phone call and don’t have the slightest care about camping.  Now the system has started building a profile of me based on erroneous information it gathered when it shouldn’t have been listening.

Think about Minority Report.  When Tom Cruise is walking through the subway, retinal scanners read his print and start showing him very directed advertising.  While we’re still years away from that technology, being able to fingerprint a mobile device when it enters the store is the next best thing.  If I look down to text my wife about which milk to buy, I could get a full screen coupon telling me about a sale on bread.

My (MAC) Generation

This is such a huge issue that Apple has taken a step to “fix” the problem in the beta release for iOS 8.  As reported by The Verge, iOS 8 randomizes the MAC address used when probing for wifi SSIDs.  This means that the MAC used to probe for wifi requests won’t be the same as the one used to connect to the actual AP.  That’s huge for location tracking.  It means that the only way people will know who I am for sure is for me to connect to the wifi network.  Only then will my true MAC address be revealed.  It also means that I have to opt-in to the location tracking.  That’s a great relief for privacy advocates and tin foil hat aficionados everywhere.

It does make iBeacon configuration a bit more time consuming.  But you’ll find that customers will be happier overall knowing their information isn’t being stored without consent.  Because there’s never been a situation where customer data was leaked, right? Not more than once, right?  Oh, who am I kidding.  If you are a retailer, you don’t want that kind of liability on your hands.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

If you’re one of the retailers deploying location based solutions for applications like iBeacon, now is the time to take a look at what you’re doing.  If you’re collecting MAC address information from probing mobile devices you should turn it off now.  Yes, privacy is a concern.  But so is your database.  Assuming iOS randomizes the entire MAC address string including the OUI and not just the 24-bit NIC at the end, your database is going to fill up quickly with bogus entries.  Sure, there may be a duplicate here and there from the random iOS strings, but they will be few and far between.

More likely, your database will overflow from the sheer number of MACs being reported by iOS 8 devices.  And since iOS7 adoption was at 87% of compatible devices just 8 months after release, you can guarantee there will be a large number of iOS devices coming into your environment running with obfuscated MAC addresses.


Tom’s Take

I don’t like the idea of being tracked when I’m not opted in to a program.  Sure, I realize that my usage statistics are being used for research.  I know that clicking those boxes in the EULA gives my data to parties unknown for any purpose they choose.  And I’m okay with it.  Provided that box is checked.

When I find out my data is being collected without my consent, it gives me the creeps.  When I learned about the new trends in data collection for the grand purposes of marketing and sales, I wanted to scream from the rooftops that the vendors needs to put a halt to this right away.  Thankfully, Apple must have heard my silent screams.  We can only hope that other manufacturers start following suit and giving us a method to prevent this from happening.  This tweet from Jan Dawson sums it up nicely:

The Slippery Slope of Social Sign-In

FBTalons

At the recent Wireless Field Day 6, we got a chance to see a presentation from AirTight Networks about their foray into Social Wifi. The idea is that business can offer free guest wifi for customers in exchange for a Facebook Like or by following the business on Twitter. AirTight has made the process very seamless by allowing an integrated Facebook login button. Users can just click their way to free wifi.

I’m a bit guarded about this whole approach. It has nothing to do with AirTight’s implementation. In face, several other wireless companies are racing to have similar integration. It does have everything to do with the way that data is freely exchanged in today’s society. Sometimes more freely than it should.

Don’t Forget Me

Facebook knows a lot about me. They know where I live. They know who my friends are. They know my wife and how many kids we have. While I haven’t filled out the fields, there are others that have indicated things like political views and even more personal information like relationship status or sexual orientation. Facebook has become a social data dump for hundreds of millions of people.

For years, I’ve said that Facebook holds the holy grail of advertising – an searchable database of everything a given demographic “likes”. Facebook knows this, which is why they are so focused on growing their advertising arm. Every change to the timeline and every misguided attempt to “fix” their profile security has a single aim: convincing business to pay for access to your information.

Now, with social wifi, those business can get access to a large amount of data easily. When you create the API integration with Facebook, you can indicate a large number of discreet data points easily. It’s just a bunch of checkboxes. Having worked in IT before, I know the siren call that could cause a business owner to check every box he could with the idea that it’s better to collect more data rather than less. It’s just harmless, right?

Give It Away Now

People don’t safeguard their social media permissions and data like they should. If you’ve ever gotten DM spam from a follower or watched a Facebook wall swamped with “on behalf of” postings you know that people are willing to sign over the rights to their accounts for a 10% discount coupon or a silly analytics game. And that’s after the warning popup telling the user what permissions they are signing away. What if the data collection is more surreptitious?

The country came unglued when it was revealed that a government agency was collecting metadata and other discreet information about people that used online services. The uproar led to hearings and debate about how far reaching that program was. Yet many of those outraged people don’t think twice about letting a coffee shop have access to a wealth of data that would make the NSA salivate.

Providers are quick to say that there are ways to limit how much data is collected. It’s trivial to disable the ability to see how many children a user has. But what if that’s the data the business wants? Who is to say that Target or Walmart won’t collect that information for an innocent purpose today only to use it to target advertisements to users at a later date. That’s the exact kind of thing that people don’t think about.

Big data and our analytic integrations are allowing it to happen with ease today. The abundance of storage means we can collect everything and keep it forever without needing to worry about when we should throw things away. Ubiquitous wireless connectivity means we are never truly disconnected from the world. Services that we rely on to tell us about appointments or directions collect data they shouldn’t because it’s too difficult to decide how to dispose of it. It may sound a bit paranoid but you would be shocked to see what people are willing to trade without realizing.


Tom’s Take

Given the choice between paying a few dollars for wifi access or “liking” a company’s page on Facebook, I’ll gladly fork over the cash. I’d rather give up something of middling value (money) instead of giving up something more important to me (my identity). The key for vendors investigating social wifi is simple: transparency. Don’t just tell me that you can restrict the data that a business can collect. Show me exactly what data they are collecting. Don’t rely on the generalized permission prompts that Facebook and Twitter provide. If business really want to know how I voted in the last election then the wifi provider has a social responsibility to tell me that before I sign up. If shady businesses are forced to admit they are overstepping their data collection bounds then they might just change their tune. Let’s make technology work to protect our privacy for once.