Depending on what niche in the WLAN space you call home, you may be very interested in goings on with “Social Wi-Fi” these days. And depending on your humor, you might really dig Social Wi-Fi, you might detest it, or you may come down somewhere in the middle. I’ll state straightaway where I stand on Social Wi-Fi: I mostly find it intrusive, lacking in full disclosure, and problematic in a number of ways. It plays fast and loose with the definition of “free”, can be downright creepy while sporting a “wow, that’s cool!” facade, and yet I don’t totally hate it.
For those who still don’t know what Social Wi-Fi is, the basic premise goes a little something like this: I offer you Wi-Fi at my business. You login through a web page with something like your Facebook or Twitter account, and through the magic of services like Oauth, you proceed to using my WLAN while in the background a thousand evil elves start eating your soul as they grind it into Big Data Elf Chow, or something thereabouts. Of course the cover story is different, and Social Wi-FI is touted as a way to better engage customers and promote loyalty.
On the plus side, I recently had the privilege of spending a couple of hours with AirTight Networks, at Wireless Field Day 7. This was my third visit at AirTight, and it’s nice to see that they are still alive and viable in a tough market, given that they were a late-comer to the WLAN access game (having made the jump from WIPS-only). Much of AirTight’s strategy seems to hinge on delivering Wi-FI access, PCI complaince, and Social Wi-Fi to small businesses (or large businesses distributed over many small sites). I did hear one case study that brought me a bit of comfort in my distrust of Social Wi-Fi (and it’s not about MY personal data, it’s about the way the whole thing is packaged, presented, and sold in ways that I don’t like as an analyst and viewer of the world), and another that gave me the heebie-friggin’-jeebies, despite the excellent delivery by perhaps the nicest guy on the planet.
The Noodles & Company case study presented at AirTight was informative, and the Noodles rep obviously was happy with the level of customer engagement that using Social Wi-Fi was providing the company. For example, after opting in customers are presented the opportunity to enroll in the Noodles’ ECLub, and sufficient numbers of them do to deem it good ROI. Customers get wireless access (I cannot perpetuate the myth that it’s “free” in this example) and various offers and interactions with the company if they opt in, and Noodles gets a wealth of data on aggregate customer trends as well as information on individual customers’ habits and preferences (no mention of whether this data is ever sold, or whether customers can egress the program once they’ve opted in- and if their data is deleted once they leave).
What I liked best in this case is that those customers who opt out of the Social Wi-Fi thing are still free to use the Noodles Wi-Fi network, and with no performance penalty in the form of rate limiting.
I Love Drew Lentz, But Not Buyin’ What He Was Sellin’
Drew (of Frontera Consulting, Twitter handle @wirelessnerd) is an amazing, passionate speaker and you can tell that he loves what he does and really believes in it. He’s a techie with a big world view, and I consider him a kindred spirit in that way. At the same time, I got a bit creeped out by Drew’s presentation. Retail analytics and monetizing the customer is one thing, but there are a number of slippery slopes in this neck of the woods, says I. In Drew’s narrative, the same sort of retail analytics used in the Noodles model to tell what’s selling and when along with how long I’m staying on site to spend money are coupled with my “likes” and information on my friends, etc. from my social media accounts. By the time it’s done, the establishment “knows” what beer and music I like, knows who I hang out with and what they like, and has created it’s idea of who I am, to a certain degree.
Stop: hammer time. Again- no mention made of:
- If I opt in, can I opt out? (The example here is a bar- what if I’m crocked when I opt in?)
- If I opt out, can I ask that anything to do with me personally be deleted?
- Can I expect that anything to do with me that was sold to others in exchange for “free” Wi-Fi be deleted from those other data stores as well?
- If it becomes common knowledge that my personal life preferences are manifesting through the establishment’s environmental reaction to my presence, how might a stalker or identify thief leverage that simply based on what they observe, even if they don’t know my name?
- What if “the algorithm” somehow gets it wrong, and turns me into someone I’m not based on what it reads in my profiles and shares that with the outside world through interactions with me at the establishment?
- What if the algorithm gets it wrong, and sells my flawed persona to other companies who now think I’m someone I’m not?
Granted, we only had limited time at AirTight, and maybe Drew could have answered all of these concerns to my liking (but I’m guessing not). And I’ll freely admit that at least a couple of my fellow delegates thought that Drew’s magic was pretty slick and saw value in it.
For me, there’s always more to the story than meets the eye. 10 years in the military, more years in IT security, and a lot of investigative work and interactions with Law Enforcement make me jaded on Social Wi-FI as it tends to be presented. I’ve yet to hear how users and their data are protected (opt-in shouldn’t equal “have your way with me”), how far my data is going to get sold off, what new middle-men now have access to information about users (anyone and everyone can be an MSP these days- does this new tier of unvetted data shepherds now “own” pots of data they can sell off, or drill into without legitimate reason?).
Please spare me the “but we already put lots of information on Facebook!” copout- this situation is incredibly nuanced, and that’s the first thing that has to be realized.
Sure, I’m skeptical- and I stand by that. But make up your own mind- here’s the AirTight presentations.