‘Free Social WiFi’ Isn’t Exactly Free


Social Sign InThe idea behind the concept of social WiFi is pretty simple: merchants offer free WiFi service to customers who visit their stores in exchange for customers logging into their network using their Facebook or LinkedIn accounts or by giving the merchant their email address. Once the consumer gets access to the WiFi network, they are asked to like the merchant’s Facebook page, or subscribe to a mailing list.

But what you (the consumer) may or may not understand is this: by logging into the merchant’s social WiFi network, you are implicitly entering into a business arrangement with the merchant, which allows them to gather your data for marketing purposes.

Not only are you giving them access to all of your information on your social media sites (including your contacts and who you follow), but you are also allowing them to track you via your mobile phone. Tracking you via your phone is not a new practice, as airports and businesses have been doing it for some time.

Even more concerning: social WiFi is just like any other public WiFi network – completely open and unencrypted without any security whatsoever, unless you’re using PRIVATE WiFi to encrypt online activity.

But if this is what you have to fork over in return for WiFi access, is the price for “free” social WiFi simply too high?

Spying by Another Name

Merchants want access to your personal information in part because it allows them to enhance your experience, such as by offering you personalized coupons and promotions when you visit their stores. Surely some consumers appreciate this and may even be willing to trade some private information for a better shopping experience.

And using personal information to customize our user experience is nothing new. Amazon and many other retailers install cookies on our computer to (in part) give us suggestions as to what we may want to buy based on past purchases.

It also tells them who is buying their products. By logging into their social WiFi networks, they get to see what age and gender demographics are buying which products, which can help them tailor future marketing campaigns.

But when we give companies access to our social media data, we give them access to our private lives. More than that, we lose control over who gets to see and handle our private information. Do we really know what these companies are doing with our private information? Most likely they are compiling it into detailed profiles about us, including our age, gender, political affiliations, credit history, and possibly even selling it to other third-party data brokers. This buying and selling of personal information is a huge business. Data brokers make literally billions of dollars a year doing just that.

SocialSign.In’s Social WiFi

One of the newest companies in the social WiFi market is SocialSign.in. It recently installed social WiFi networks in more than 200 locations around New York City for nearly 80 clients.

SocialSign.in includes the following quite shocking claims in its privacy policy:

  • “We may automatically collect geolocational information from your Device or wireless carrier and/or certain third-party service providers.”
  • “When you log into to the Website or use the Services with your Facebook credentials, you will be authorizing us to access, and we will obtain, your basic profile information, your birthday, your ‘likes,’ and user location.”
  • “We may share your Personal Information, Geolocational Information, and Other Information (excluding the Browsing Data) with our third-party promotional and marketing partners, including, without limitation, businesses participating in our various programs.”

This means that not only does SocialSign.in collect your location information and nearly everything in your Facebook profile, but it can share this information with any of its business partners at any time. In other words, by simply agreeing to use their public WiFi networks, you are allowing them to share deeply personal information with whomever they choose.

We all love having Internet access when we are on the go, including when we shop. But if we have to give over so much personal information just to get access to an insecure WiFi network, maybe we need to rethink just how much it might cost us.

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Jared Howe

Jared Howe is PRIVATE WiFi’s Senior Manager, Product Marketing Communications. Working in high tech for over 15 years, Jared currently lives in Seattle with his wife, daughter, and their two cats.

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