- By Joel Hruska on July 2, 2015
That last feature is the potentially controversial one. When you turn on this feature of WiFi Sense (and it’s not clear if the feature comes activated or not), it will request permission to connect to Outlook, Skype, and Facebook on your behalf. Other users on your friends list who also run Windows 10 will have their contact information shared with you as well, assuming they also enable the feature.
Microsoft claims that this feature improves security and reduces frustration. Now, instead of painstakingly spelling or writing down passwords for guests or friends, they can automatically acquire them as soon as they come in-range of your home network. The company’s FAQ states:
“When you share Wi-Fi network access with Facebook friends, Outlook.com contacts, or Skype contacts, they’ll be connected to the password-protected Wi-Fi networks that you choose to share and get Internet access when they’re in range of the networks (if they use Wi-Fi Sense). Likewise, you’ll be connected to Wi-Fi networks that they share for Internet access too. Remember, you don’t get to see Wi-Fi network passwords, and you both get Internet access only. They won’t have access to other computers, devices, or files stored on your home network, and you won’t have access to these things on their network.”
In theory, Microsoft could be right, but the company is also creating a de facto database of WiFi information. Elsewhere in the FAQ, Microsoft notes that if you choose to share this information, it’s sent via an encrypted link to Microsoft, who stores the data on their own servers (again in encrypted format). This isn’t as foolproof as it might have once seemed; we’ve covered multiple bugs related to Internet encryption standards in the past 9 months.
The other concern we have with WiFi Sense is that the feature has no granularity beyond the service level. I can choose to share or not-share information with Facebook, Outlook, or Skype, but that’s it. If you share your network information with anyone on your Facebook friends list, you’re sharing it with everyone on your Facebook friends list. That’s something Microsoft really ought to have addressed when it brought the feature over from Windows Phone; just because I want to share this kind of data with some people doesn’t mean I want to share it with everyone.
The continued degradation of privacyThe risk of exposing your network connection to ne’er-do-wells on Facebook or Outlook.com is small, but it’s not zero. The bigger issue I want to highlight, though, is how features like this indirectly erode the concept of user privacy and the perceived need for good security practices. This is something we’ve talked about before in relation to Apple, but it’s not just an Apple or a Microsoft problem.
On the one hand, we tell people that they need to secure their data with strong passwords while research shows how passwords are trivial to hack — even many strong passwords can be cracked fairly easily. Services like LastPass promise to offer protection, only to fall prey to hacks in turn. When companies get hacked, whether its Target or LastPass, the consequences of these failures are often trivial. Even Lenovo, which installed one of the most appalling breaches of user-security to ever ship on modern PCs, appears to have come through its Superfish debacle largely unscathed.
This tension is at the heart of all security systems, not merely the online ones. If designing secure systems is difficult, designing secure systems that are both fast and easy-to-use is borderline impossible. Nonetheless, online companies often encourage users to share information that proper security practices say ought not be shared, while the consequences of security breaches for the companies that breach them are so small, it sends the message that hey — privacy and security aren’t really things you need to care about. And it just so happens that this relatively lax attitude towards privacy underwrites the business model of multi-billion dollar corporations, many of whom seek ever-more lenient rules on what they can and cannot do with your personal information.
On a practical level, the risks from WiFi Sense are small. But from a best-practices security standpoint, it’s far from a great idea.