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.
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.