Paying for “Free” Wireless With Your Data: Social WiFi

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Local business owners use free WiFi to market their business and give their customers an extra incentive to come back. This model isn’t anything new: Starbucks, McDonalds and many neighborhood cafes and restaurants are already implementing this strategy. But, what happens when WiFi becomes socialized and companies start harnessing the power of social media to drive business? That is where, Purple WiFi enters the arena, and if the concept of “Social WiFi” makes you weary, you are on the right path.

Free WiFiA member of the technology company So Purple Group, Purple WiFi was founded in late 2012. Purple WiFi provides a wireless hotspot for the business. The catch is that the WiFi comes at a social price: any customer who wishes to access the network must engage with the business on social media.  As the company describes, a user “will be required to simply ‘like’ the relevant Facebook page, ‘tweet’ about their location or Google+ the company.”

If that sounds like a great deal for the customer, think again! The currency at play in this scenario is your data. When a user sends a tweet or likes a page, they are opening their data up to a third-party. Thus, customers are handing over their privacy to the business in exchange for the ability to connect. In a recent press release from Purple WiFi, the company explains that the business providing the WiFi has access to a “customer portal” which tracks the customers’ usage, surfing patterns, and behavior. Additionally, the system also curates demographics such as age, gender, martial status and other readily available attributes that are public on the customer’s social media accounts. Using this data the business can then further target users with tailored promotions and discounts.

The data trail goes even further since Purple WiFi can track a user’s exact whereabouts within the business. As Hazel Allsopp, Purple WiFi’s Digital Marketing Manager, tells thefonecast.com, “Larger retail businesses are also using social WiFi to track customer’s journey around a store, helping them to monitor footfall and improving store layouts to maximize profits.”

The company does make note of the dangers of public WiFi and recently joined forces with the Internet Watch Foundation to prevent anyone surfing on a Purple WiFi from viewing child pornography .

However, the question about other security issues is something that Purple WiFi cannot stop. The company makes note of the concerns on its website, “Hackers, digital downloaders and other unscrupulous people love to use unsecured hotspots to carry out their activities. And even if you do secure your WiFi, you’re still open to possible abuse and a raft of legal requirements.”

Purple WiFi’s service does provide some assistance: businesses can manage the amount of bandwidth each users can consume and they provide family-friendly content filtering. But, they are not encrypting any of the traffic on their network.

Instead, the only way for a customer to stay secure on Purple WiFi — or any public WiFi for that matter — is with a Virtual Private Network (VPN); it sends all the data traveling to and from your computer through a secure tunnel that’s invisible to hackers (and the business owners using Purple WiFi trying to learn everything about you!)

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Jillian Ryan

Jillian Ryan is PRIVATE WiFi's Director, Brand Communications and Social Strategy. With a passion for writing, the web, and fast-paced information exchanged via social networks, Jillian is also concerned about the ramifications of putting your life details and personal data into cyberspace. Follow her on Twitter: @Writing_Jillian.