Software

Balance security and convenience with Windows 10's Wi-Fi Sense

With Windows 10, the feature Wi-Fi Sense is on by default, so it's important that you know what it does and how it works.

Windows 10

According to one report, as of the morning of July 31, 2015, two days after it was made available, Microsoft Windows 10 had been installed on over 67 million PCs. No matter how you slice it, that's a phenomenal achievement and indicates to me that consumers are intrigued by the new operating system and its new features.

However, as is to be expected when so many new things are introduced at the same time, there's going to be a learning curve and sometimes even some confusion about how the new features work. This is the case with a new Windows 10 feature called Wi-Fi Sense.

What it does

If you used Express settings (Figure A), as most of us did, when you installed Windows 10, then Wi-Fi Sense is on by default, so it's important that you know what it does and how it works.

Figure A

Figure A
Image: Microsoft

Wi-Fi Sense is on by default if you used Express settings.

Wi-Fi Sense will automatically connect you to open Wi-Fi networks it discovers through crowdsourcing. Obviously, this feature is designed for smartphones and other mobile devices.

Wi-Fi Sense will also automatically connect you to Wi-Fi networks that your Facebook friends, Outlook.com contacts, or Skype contacts have shared. This automatic connection will only occur if you have shared a network with one of those groups in the past. So, if you never share, this feature will never activate.

Check out the Windows 10 FAQ for further details.

What it doesn't do

Wi-Fi Sense does not share your Wi-Fi network passphrase or your network admin password for your Wi-Fi router. When you decide to share a network, you're asked to provide a separate shared password that will be encrypted and then passed between devices by Wi-Fi Sense servers. The person and device you're sharing your network access with do not see any password at all.

For Windows 10 users operating in an enterprise environment with centralized Wi-Fi authentication, the Wi-Fi Sense system will be turned off and sharing will not be an option.

What is the concern?

Granting automatic access to friends and contacts that may or may not be trustworthy makes security-conscious people very nervous. Even if Microsoft has taken measures to encrypt the exchange of credentials, there's always the potential for motivated crackers to find ways to circumvent the security protocols.

I can understand this thinking, and I don't disagree with it completely. However, I don't think it merits the "crisis" treatment it has been getting. Wi-Fi Sense is mostly a convenience for mobile devices, and most users are not going to share their network connection unless there's a specific reason that requires it (like visiting friends and family who need access to the internet).

So, in that situation, with Windows 10, rather than telling your friends or family your Wi-Fi network passphrase, and thus having it known and potentially passed on, you can just share your network with an encrypted exchange of credentials using Wi-Fi Sense. Of course, everyone involved is going to have to be using Windows 10.

Turn it off

If you're still concerned about Wi-Fi Sense and would like to turn it off on your PC, here's how:

  1. Click on the Windows (Start) button, and then click the Settings link. On the Settings screen, click the Network & Internet button to reach the configuration screen shown in Figure B.
    Figure B
    Figure B
  2. Click the Manage Wi-Fi settings link to reach the screen shown in Figure C, where you can click the slider buttons to turn off Wi-Fi Sense.
    Figure C
    Figure C

Bottom line

Wi-Fi Sense is a convenience feature in Windows 10 that will come in handy for the mobile device carrying, always on world we live in. By mutually sharing Wi-Fi network access amongst your friends and contacts, you can assure each other of a constant connection to the internet and all that entails.

However, the tradeoff is that you are granting Wi-Fi access to an entire group, not just one individual, and that could potentially be a security problem. Although, it is important to keep in mind that any malevolent activity will require the perpetrator to be in close proximity to your wireless network.

Windows 10 users are being asked to balance the convenience of Wi-Fi Sense with the potential for security risk, minimal as it may be. It's going to be up to each individual to decide how or if they want to use this new feature.

Your thoughts

I don't have any reason to share my Wi-Fi network with anyone at the moment, so I turned Wi-Fi Sense off, but what about you? Are you sharing your network using Wi-Fi Sense? Tell us how it works. Do you have security concerns? Join the discussion thread below.

Also see

    About Mark Kaelin

    Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.

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