Facebook free wifiEarlier this month Facebook announced an interesting partnership with Cisco; the two tech companies have teamed up to provide free WiFi access at local businesses.

Connect Mobile Experiences (CMX), the Facebook/Cisco free WiFi program, has been running in San Francisco via a field test at 25 local businesses since January 2012. Currently, The Bonefish Grill restaurant chain has also introduced CMX in nearly 160 locations. Other brands are rapidly jumping onboard, according to Cisco.

How It Works

The premise appears simple, at first glance: the program gives a customer access to the local network and redirects the user to the company’s Facebook page upon connection. During the session, the user will see information about the retailer, including special sales and promotions, and other targeted advertisements. The business providing the WiFi gets the benefits of social brand recognition, exposure to new customers in the social graph, and access to customer data.

In a recent release, Facebook describes the infrastructure:

"Consumers connect to the network of a participating business, open their browser on any mobile device or laptop, and a Facebook check-in page appears. After checking in, consumers are directed to the business' Facebook Page, where they can receive the latest information about the venue. Facebook provides aggregated anonymous insights about people's activity on their Page, including demographics such as age, gender, and city. Businesses can analyze this data to better understand their customer's preferences and deliver targeted promotions— ultimately improving their advertising and marketing campaigns."

The True Cost of 'Free'

Although it sounds win-win, this “free” WiFi can end up costing consumers more than they bargain for. When the user checks-in, Facebook provides the business with information about the user such as their age, geo-location, and gender. The social network says the data will be “aggregated, anonymous,” which means the details cannot be tracked to each individual, but businesses will still be able to optimize their promotional campaigns by delivering targeted advertisements, and other deals based on the real-time information received from consumers in the venue.

If you wish to keep your profile data out of the business’ hands, there are few possibilities. The option to keep a check-in private will be provided and those who don’t have a Facebook account will have the ability to log in with the traditional WiFi password provided directly by the business.

But if a user manages to circumvent the business from seeing their data, in a public hotspot there are plenty of other security risks to be concerned about. Even if a WiFi network is password protected, it is not secure; anyone with access to that connection can potentially hack your data and other sensitive information that is sent and received during the session.

The best way for a user to protect themselves when accessing a public hotspot is to use a personal virtual private network like PRIVATE WiFi. This software will encrypt all data with bank-level security and keep cyber-criminals from spying on you or stealing your personal information.