Facebook is testing a new feature that helps users find nearby public Wi-Fi networks, but it's unclear whether its tool undermines users' privacy.
In November 2016, the security community first heard reports about Facebook's decision to test a public Wi-Fi locator. As a company spokesperson told Mashable at the time:
"To help people stay connected to the friends and experiences they care about, we are rolling out a new feature that surfaces open Wi-Fi networks associated with nearby places."
As of this writing, the feature is available only for iOS users in certain countries. There are apps out there that mimic the function of this tool, but Facebook's is different in that it displays each network on a map along with its address and distance away from the user.
It's also unique in that the feature works inside of Facebook, which means the company would likely need to collect information about those who use it. At the very least, Facebook recommends that individuals who use the feature give it access to their location history.
Ken Yeung of Venture Beat explains the company's reasoning:
"It will not only show you the business offering free Wi-Fi, but also how long it’ll take to get there and the network you can connect to. Facebook recommends that you give the app permission to access your location history, claiming it will 'allow Facebook to build a history of precise locations received through your device.'"
Facebook could also theoretically collect other information about the user to provide them with advertising content that's unique to them based upon their location.
Uses need to carefully weigh these considerations before they decide to enable the public Wi-Fi locator, which isn't Facebook's only new feature that has given us pause. Do they want to provide Facebook with more information about themselves? Would another app with similar functionality serve them better?
Additionally, users should always think twice before connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. They can't be sure whether a hacker is sitting on that network waiting to spy on them and steal their information.
We all know what connecting to a public Wi-Fi network can reveal about a person. With that said, users should try to avoid connecting to these networks unless they absolutely need to do so. In the event that they do, they should use a VPN.
Finally, users should consider installing a tool that scans a public Wi-Fi hotspot for vulnerabilities, like the one offered by Avast.