There is no such thing as free wifi

john steinbeck

John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, whose birthday is today, said: “Man is the only kind of varmint that sets its own trap, baits it, then steps in it.”

This post is all about privacy. I heard on All Sides with Ann Fisher during the Tech Tuesday discussion a caller lament the number of “permissions” his Facebook app was requesting. It was clear to me that this mobile user misunderstood his place in the “Free” App marketplace.

The only reason any app is given for free is to get something in return. Your location, your friends, your demographics, and internet searches and history all have value. For example, Facebook purchased Whatsapp last week for $19,000,000,000. This number seems astronomical considering that Whatsapp has yet to make a dollar from its service. With an estimated 450 million users, it puts the price of your personal information at about $42. For a great resource determining what else $19 BILLION can buy click the Mars Colony below (hint: you can build 3 of these).

mars colony

Have you ever signed up for “free wifi” at Starbucks? Look at the terms and conditions next time. While at the NRF BIG Show in NYC last month, I talked to RetailNEXT founder Alexei Agratchev about the possibilities of retail tracking. RetailNext is just one of many providers that can take data, mined from wifi logins, apps, bluetooth pings, point of sale, and camera systems, to determine the best use of staffing, valuable customers, and merchandising strategies. For example, what if a customer entered the store and a bluetooth connection picked up on their arrival. It could alert the staff through radio headsets, “Claire has arrived. She spent $500 last trip. Please immediately welcome her back and assist her.” That is customized shopping.

While this may sound scary to some, we already see this being used online. To test this theory, spend a few minutes looking for a new product you want on Amazon. Now, clear your cookies and internet cache and history. Go back to Amazon and try your search again. What you’l find is a completely different experience. No “just for you” offers of customized suggestions.

If you ask the average consumer, “Do you want a customized shopping experience where the retailer knows exactly what you want?” Most would agree that service would be great. Ask the same people, “Do you want retailers to know your shopping habits, location, and what your friends bought?” The same people would probably hesitate or say “Absolutely not!”

My point is, you cannot have it both ways. Those “free” apps and wifi and online games and experiences come at a price. While you are not spending $$ to get the service, you most definitely are paying a price. Ultimately, I love the customized shopping and I don’t mind being tracked by retailers for the good of my experience. Unfortunately, there are ways to use this information for more nefarious reasons. That is why security of this information is so essential as we move ahead.

As Steinbeck said, we have built our own trap and baited it. It will be future technologies that determine if we can refrain from stepping in it.

talk to you soon


me at service awards

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