You’re enjoying a nice cup of coffee at your favorite coffee shop and you’d like to use their Wi-Fi. But, once you connect and open your browser, you’re met with a login screen. You can’t visit any other sites; it just keeps bringing you back to a login screen. You’ve ran into a captive portal login screen. What is it? Fret not because all will be explained.

Businesses love to find small ways of attracting customers and a “free” network connection is a great way to do so. The reason “free” is in quotations is simply because most businesses only offer network access to visitors that actually buy something. So, really, you’re essentially paying for it in some way even if they aren’t actually charging you to use it.

This, of course, poses a problem. What if someone wants to use the Wi-Fi connection without going through the necessary steps? Those are individuals committing “bandwidth hogging,” and it isn’t uncommon for restaurants or coffee shops, without a password put in place, to have individuals hanging outside just to use their network, like bugs attracted to a light.

Of course, businesses understand that this could be an issue. Many networks then add restrictions to certain websites that have a lot of traffic, typically websites that have big files for you to download. There’s a name for it, too, and it’s called “bandwidth throttling” or “traffic shaping.” They can limit the size of files you download or limit the amount of individual downloads you make.

A captive portal login is the door you need to pass through in order to gain access to a business’ network hotspot. Without the login, you can’t do anything. You can’t visit other websites; you can’t download music and you can’t upload either. That’s where the “captive” part comes in because you’re unable to do anything, but accept their terms. You need the key to the castle in the form of a user ID and password. And they don’t hand them out to just anyone.

When you first open a web page, you’re usually greeted with some kind of agreement, a AUP, or “acceptable use policy.” In other words, if you commit any criminal act while utilizing their network, the business is in no way responsible for your actions. The business can wash their hands of any lawsuits if you just so happened to be a victim of criminal activity.

Sharing the Network

Sharing the network with sometimes dozens of other individuals can spell disaster for some unknowing victim. Captive portal logins can help alleviate this pressure from wannabe hackers with the use of a user ID and password. On top of that, captive portal logins tend to come with their own set of anti-virus and firewall so that your computer or device has extra protection against the other users in the room.

Types of Captive Portals

Captive portals don’t always come in the form of a user ID and password. If you boil it down, captive portals just have to be something you agree to before accessing the business’ network.

One example is, of course, the user ID and password. This can vary from business to business, but the common thread is you’ll need to buy something before you use. For example, any lodgings that offer free Wi-Fi will first need you to rent their room; it’s a perk of using their service. Others may have you click past advertisements before you even come to the login screen.

Speaking of advertisement, another example is watching an advertisement video, that isn’t skippable, before you can accept their AUP and browse to your heart’s content. However, it may not end there. It’s possible, and likely, that you’ll be bombarded with advertising for almost the entire duration of your network session.

Another example is using Facebook or some other social media website to gain access to the network. This is pretty commonplace, but it’s only part of a large picture. Many will ask for personal information before using their network. Using social media also gives customers a more familiar, more easier, environment.

Your Data is Being Collected

Don’t panic. It isn’t being used for malicious intent, but rather, data is collected on the websites users visit and what exactly it is that they do.

This better helps understand which advertisements are best suited for their customers and you. You wouldn’t get any satisfaction out of seeing sports advertising if you have no interest in sports.

There’s a very fine line that’s drawn for the usage of user data collected, especially when user data is collected through the use of a social media account.

To make a long story short, captive portals are the gate to a network. You can’t use that network until requirements are met. Those requirements can span from watching advertisement to needing a user ID and password. They can provide protection from other users while at the same time, collect data to better the system itself.