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It’s the biggest dilemma of our age.
I’m not talking about climate change, or melting ice-caps, or even Cecil the lion. I’m talking about how long you should wait before it’s socially acceptable to ask for the Wi-Fi password when visiting a friends’s house.
Some say 30 minutes. Some say 1 hour. Some say never. Microsoft, however, says “why ask?”.
Yes, I am talking about Wi-Fi Sense – a little known (and controversial) feature of Windows 10 that lets you use the Wi-Fi networks of your friends and contacts, without even having to ask. Here’s how it works.
Meet Wi-Fi Sense
At its most fundamental level, Wi-Fi Sense allows people with compatible laptops and mobile devices to connect to the Wi-Fi networks of their friends, without actually having to know their Wi-Fi password.
By linking your Windows 10 device with your Outlook.com (formerly Hotmail), Skype and Facebook accounts, you thus grant them access to your network. It’s reciprocal, too. Friends with Wi-Fi Sense activated likewise grant you access to their own home Wi-Fi network.
On Windows Phone 8.1, it does a little bit more, and can automatically connect you to open Wi-Fi networks, and even accept terms and conditions on your behalf. It’s part of a larger stable of “Sense” services, including Battery Sense and Storage Sense.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? But despite that, people are panicked, and eagerly deactivating it on their devices. Why, and should you do the same?
What’s The Controversy?
Despite being on Windows Phone 8.1 for a while, the inclusion of Wi-Fi Sense has been surprisingly controversial, with many column inches in the technology press being dedicated to it.
The criticism mostly comes from the surreptitious way in which it was enabled on Windows 10 devices. It was one of the (highly criticized) default settings on Windows 10. If you recently upgraded, and without thinking pressed “next”, you probably have it activated. Although, that’s also been the case on Windows Phone 8.1 for a long while, and nobody’s complained about it.
But a fair share of condemnation has come from the way in which it gives everyone – absolutely everyone – you know access to you home network.
Wi-Fi Sense doesn’t allow you to select which friends you share your network details with. This isn’t too much of a problem if you’ve got a limited friends list that consists exclusively of your nearest and dearest. But that’s not how the majority of people use social media.
For the majority of us, our friends list is more haphazard, consists of former colleagues, old flames, people they met down the pub, passing acquaintances and strangers they’ve struck up a conversation with online. Do you want to give them access to your network?
Especially when you consider that there’s no way to moderate what they do on your network. There’s no way, for example, to prevent them from downloading illegal or pirated material within Wi-Fi sense. You’ll have to implement your own network-level filtering system with something like OpenDNS.
But it’s also worth noting that some feel the risks surrounding Wi-Fi Sense have been very much overhyped.
Are The Risks Overblown?
Probably. Wi-Fi Sense has been, quite dishonestly in my view, presented as something that’s been foisted upon people, and will give near-strangers unrestricted access to your home network.
Firstly, we should probably stress that Wi-Fi Sense is only intended for home users. Corporate users – who routinely deal with sensitive and privileged information – can turn off Wi-Fi Sense with Group Policy, and during the enrollment phase. It also doesn’t work with networks using the 802.11X authentication standard, which are standard enterprise fare.
So, the chance of Wi-Fi Sense being the cause of the next great big data breech is slim indeed.
Moreover, if you want to definitively prevent a hotspot from being shared, you can also rename its SSID to end with “_optout”. It’s as easy as that.
Surprisingly, Wi-Fi Sense isn’t that good of an attack vector, as it severely limits what someone connected to your network can do. It only grants access to the Internet. You wouldn’t, for example, be able to access a file or print server, or attack any other hosts on the network with hacking tools like Metasploit.
There’s an added layer of security when it comes to how the Wi-Fi password is shared. Rather than sending it to the devices in a plaintext form, where it can then be intercepted, decoded and used on another device, it’s sent in an encrypted form. This means that it can only work under the tight restrictions set by Wi-Fi Sense.
How Can I Find Out For Myself?
Whether you want to turn Wi-Fi Sense off is entirely up to you. There are some advantages, like not having to mess around with Wi-Fi codes whenever a friend pays you a visit. But there are some privacy and security concerns.
If you’re on Windows Phone 8.1, turning it off is simply a matter of tapping Settings > Wi-Fi Settings > Wi-Fi Sense, and then sliding it into the off position.
On Windows 10, click All Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi Settings, and uncheck everything under For networks I select, share them with my….
If you wish to turn of Wi-Fi Sense completely, and not access the hotspots shared by your friends, unselect Connect to suggested open hotspots and Connect to networks shared by my contacts.
Would You Use It?
Wi-Fi Sense is a controversial, but useful feature in Windows 10. But will you be using it, or will you be rushing to turn it off? Either way, let me know in the comments below.