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Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum in Washington

Photograph by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Newseum in Washington

Facebook (FB) and Cisco Systems (CSCO) might seem like strange bedfellows, but on Wednesday they revealed a partnership that could turn the world’s biggest social network into the gateway for Wi-Fi access at businesses across the country.

Consumers are increasingly expecting free Wi-Fi when they visit restaurants, malls, hotels, and tourist attractions. And a growing number of those establishments are obliging, but they want something in return, says Chris Spain, a vice president at Cisco’s enterprise networking group. Cisco and Facebook are prepared to deliver that quid pro quo in the form of detailed analytics about their customers.

Called Facebook Wi-Fi Service, the setup allows a business to do away with password-protected networks and registration screens, substituting a customer’s Facebook credentials for a login. Just as you can use Facebook to register and log in to many apps and websites, you can use the same credentials to get online via the MGM Grand’s Wi-Fi networks in Las Vegas. MGM Resorts International (MGM) and several other Cisco enterprise wireless customers around the world are piloting the technology.

But the Wi-Fi program isn’t the same as Facebook Login for developers, which is actually trying to verify a user’s identity. Facebook Wi-Fi isn’t sharing the customer’s name with the network owner; instead, it’s supplying the business with demographic and social data drawn from the customer’s profile, according to Spain. The data are anonymous, he says, but it could be used to send customers specific marketing promotions while they’re connected to the network. It could also be used by businesses to get detailed information on who their customers are and how they’re using their services, Spain says.

For instance, the MGM Grand has a huge Wi-Fi network, with hundreds if not thousands of access points. It could gather a lot of data from that network, such as where people are congregating in its casino, as well as which shops are being frequented and at what times. It can tell whether people in one area of the hotel tend to stay put or move around. What Facebook brings to the table is a large repository of data—not just age and gender, but stated “likes” for anything from Starbucks (SBUX) coffee to heavyweight boxing.

MGM could then mine that data in real time for clues on which services to promote to those customers—a coupon for a drink at the sports book would go to the football fan, while an invitation to the MGM Grand’s famous lion habitat would go to the self-proclaimed animal lover.

I’ll be the first to admit this sounds a little scary, no matter how anonymous the data supposedly are. While I realize Facebook collects tremendous amounts of data about its customers, which it then shares with advertisers and other parties for a fee, Facebook Wi-Fi takes that model one step further. It’s not just the social network that knows my likes and dislikes, but also the physical network to which I’m connected.

Still, I have little doubt this will prove to be a popular feature if these pilots are successful. Cisco is the largest supplier of enterprise Wi-Fi networks in the world, and Facebook is, of course, the largest social network in the world, so there’s no question this technology can scale quickly. People like their Wi-Fi free, and they don’t want to go through a lot of steps to access it. And if Facebook credentials are one thing, they’re convenient.

Also from Gigaom:

Real Disruption Is Here in Mobile. And It’s Growing (subscription required)

Report: Amazon’s 3D Phone Will Use Four Cameras to Track Head and Eye Movement

Designing Security Into the Internet of Things

iOS E-Reading Platform Readmill Launches on Android After Finding Users Read More on Phones Than Tablets

Silk Road Mastermind Faces 30 Years in Attempted Murder Charge

Kevin covers mobile broadband, carriers and wireless infrastructure for Gigaom.

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Companies Mentioned

  • FB
    (Facebook Inc)
    • $80.78 USD
    • 0.01
    • 0.01%
  • CSCO
    (Cisco Systems Inc)
    • $28.35 USD
    • 0.05
    • 0.18%
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