July 28th, 2015, 22:28 Posted By: wraggster
Windows 10 has a feature that makes me very uncomfortable. WiFi Sense automatically connects you to open networks and shares your Wi-Fi password to your contacts on Skype, Facebook, and Outlook.com. More than that, Microsoft stores an encrypted copy of every Wi-Fi password you enter on your Windows 10 device.
Behind Wi-Fi Sense is a cool idea. Microsoft describes it thus:
WiFi Sense automatically connects you to nearby WiFi networks, helping you to save your mobile data for when you really need it and giving you more Internet connectivity options. WiFi Sense can do a lot of things for you to get you connected to the Internet using WiFi, so you don't have to do them on your own. These include:
So, when you go round to a friend's house you don't have to fiddle around connecting to their network and entering the password. Instead, as soon as you enter range of their Wi-Fi your device is connected to the internet. It's convenient, saves time, and stops you from crawling under a desk to read the sticker on the bottom of their Wi-Fi hub.
Automatically connecting you to crowdsourced open WiFi networks it knows about.
Letting you exchange password-protected WiFi network access with your contacts to give and get Internet access without seeing each other's WiFi network passwords.
But the problems in practice are numerous.
For a start, Wi-Fi Sense is activated by default on all Windows 10 devices. So, if you don't know it's there to turn off, your laptop will be sharing your Wi-Fi password with Microsoft and your contacts, and will also be connecting to open networks without your explicit say so.
It doesn't actually show your password to anyone; instead, contacts' devices are sent the password and it does all the connecting for them. But who wants to share their Wi-Fi password with all their Skype or Facebook or email contacts? There's no option to share with specific people: it's all or nothing.
However, there are also some instances when WiFi Sense will share your details with strangers.
WiFi Sense can connect your device to open Wi-Fi hotspots:
Some WiFi hotspots require you to provide a name, phone number or email address in order to connect. To help get you connected quickly, WiFi Sense can do this for you on your behalf. In some countries or regions, these fields may be populated by default with generic information that's not related to you specifically. For example, the Email address box may default firstname.lastname@example.org, but not your Microsoft account email address. So if you don't change the default info, only generic info will be provided.So you could be walking through town as your phone or laptop sends your phone number and email address out to open networks.
WiFi Sense won't connect you to every open network around, but the way it determines which networks it connects to isn't based on security.
WiFi Sense maintains a database of information about open WiFi hotspots – and we update that crowdsourced information based on what your phone and the phones of other participating customers tell us about those networks. WiFi Sense analyses characteristics of open WiFi networks that other Windows Phone users have connected to and determines if the users had a good-quality connection. If enough of them did, those networks are added to the database and then suggested by WiFi Sense, so you and others can get connected to them when using WiFi Sense.So, to trawl in data from WiFi Sense users it sounds like you just have to have a high-powered open network, run it for long enough for the right people, and Microsoft will add it to a database. Then you just record folks' phone numbers and email addresses.
Microsoft acknowledges these networks aren't secure, saying: "an open network is a Wi-Fi network that doesn't require a password to connect, which means that the network isn't secure. Anyone can connect to it and other people might see info you send over the network." Yet it still includes them as an automatic connection for Wi-Fi Sense.
The problems aren't limited to open networks, though. Say you don't have Windows 10, and a friend who does comes round and you let them enter the password to your Wi-Fi. If they have WiFi Sense activated, then they just shared your Wi-Fi password with everyone in their contacts.
As mentioned before, Microsoft doesn't let you share your password with individual contacts, either. If you want to share your Wi-Fi password with a Skype contact you have to share it with ALL your contacts.
The thing that makes me really uncomfortable is that for WiFi Sense to work, Microsoft has to have a server filled with Wi-Fi passwords. Yes, they're all encrypted and, yes, the server will be surrounded with digital protections, but if recent years have proven anything it's that high security servers are not safe from hackers. The encryption may be very hard to break but it may not be impossible to break.
Happily, you can turn it off. In Windows 10, if you go to Settings > Network & Internet > Wi-Fi > Manage Wi-Fi settings you can turn off WiFi Sense. You'll also see the option to have Microsoft and you contacts' devices to forget any passwords you've shared.
You can also have your Wi-Fi network opt-out, preventing from you or anyone else connecting to it from sharing it with Microsoft and their contacts. To do that you need to add '_optout' to the end of your Wi-Fi network's name.
WiFi Sense may one day become something I'll be confident using but right now it isn't.
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