What is a Captive Portal?

Academy 10 minute read 28th March 2022

Do you remember the good old days when you could stroll into almost any cafe, bar, or museum, whip out your mobile device and seamlessly gain internet access?

Well, the days of uninhibited networks may be gone, and with them, the plethora of security issues they presented. In their place, captive portals have allowed all kinds of businesses and public places to offer a reasonably secure, marketing-friendly, and simple alternative.

Today, we’re going to be diving a little deeper into discovering what exactly captive portals are, how they work, and what benefits they can bring to business owners. If you haven’t yet explored captive portals for your clientele, or uncovered the various WiFi marketing opportunities they present, it’s high time you did so.

Love them or hate them, captive portals are very much the ‘new normal’ of wireless network access, and they’re unlikely to disappear any time soon.

What Exactly is a Captive Portal?

What is a captive portal - 3 kinds of logins

The chances are, you come across captive portals on a fairly regular basis. Whenever you’re in a coffee shop or wandering around town and want to access your emails or social media, yet don’t fancy using up your mobile data to do so, you’ll probably have to go through a captive portal in order to use a business’ wireless internet network.

Simply put, a captive portal is a splash page or other kind of web page which is displayed in order to connect new users, before eventually allowing them access to a network. It will usually consist - at the very least - of a Terms of Service list, and will prompt customers to click an ‘I Agree’ button at the bottom.

Many businesses will set up their captive portals to include a personal information form, requiring new users to submit their name, email, social media accounts, room number (if in a hotel), or other kinds of identifying information. Others still will make use of captchas or require a customer to watch marketing videos or subscribe to social media channels.

As you move from captive portal to captive portal, you’ll discover that there is a fairly broad range of approaches, and all have become reasonably commonplace.

While it’s fairly clear that these steps exist primarily to enable business owners to capture marketing data from customers and passing trade, there are a number of other reasons why captive portals have become so normalised. Guest wifi has become something of a business essential in 2022 (after all, for better or worse, many of us would be put off visiting a bar if it doesn’t have easy internet access) and captive portals can help with wireless network efficiency as well as bring some security benefits, too.

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How Does a Captive Portal Work?

What is a captive portal - Process of login

As mentioned, captive portal splash pages stop customers and members of the public accessing a network until host verification has been established. By using various login methods, the free network connection will be opened to the individual’s smart device, granting internet access (which the network host has some control over, for example being able to block adult content etc) to be used as the customer wishes.

Should the network detect that the client has previously connected to the system, and has therefore already submitted their details or agreed to the terms and conditions, they may be able to bypass the splash page.

What’s more, the splash page may also pop up when the individual opens a brand new web page using the network, rather than when they initially connected through the same access point; much of this kind of variation will come down to the needs and preferences of the network host or business owner.

What are the Benefits of a Captive Portal?

While there have been plenty of criticisms levelled at the use of captive portals (which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows that, especially in the internet age, you simply can’t please everybody), the way they work and the data they give access to comes with no shortage of benefits for savvy business owners looking to boost their ROI.

Primarily, captive portals provide a certain level of freedom from liability, especially in the event of unwanted online behaviour and illegal activity. They also add to a broader suite of security features that may keep your company assets secure, and - crucially for cafes frequented by the ever-growing waves of freelance workers and digital nomads - give increased bandwidth control.

More than a few coffee shop owners would be happy to hear that captive portals offer customisable time limits, which might put off liberty-taking customers who want to buy one small cup of tea… and then spend eight hours taking up a table and tapping away at their screenplay.

What is a captive portal - Messaging

Of course, the main benefit of captive portals comes in the form of integrated marketing opportunities. Captive portals seamlessly engage users at a critical point in their online experience, giving rise to a powerful medium by which to capture guest emails, request the completion of data surveys, expose clientele to promotional material, or encourage them to view sponsored offers and advertisements.

Are Captive Portals Secure?

As you’re surely well aware, when it comes to online security, there are no truly foolproof solutions - determined hackers and cybercriminals have an annoying habit of staying one step ahead no matter what precautions are taken, and the most any of us civilians can do is make life a little harder for them with the tools at our disposal.

There’s no getting away from the fact that captive portals have, at times, been often looked down upon by cybersecurity experts. It’s been pointed out that, because captive portals are automatically loaded to a user’s device (and along with it, the associated javascript), users are essentially putting their online safety in the hands of the wifi network’s administrators. If that network has already been compromised, hackers have an easy way by which to mount attacks.

That’s not to say that the dangers outweigh the benefits, however. By implementing everyday best practices and making use of easily-accessible security measures, these risks can be reduced quite dramatically.

Device and OS firms have launched dozens of ways to minimise these issues, and existing OS features and detection software should do its job well for the vast majority of businesses looking to benefit from captive portals.

As it stands, captive portals present fantastic new opportunities for increasing engagement, loyalty, and marketing opportunities for business owners of all types. With cybersecurity growing ever tighter and more sophisticated, there’s little doubt that captive portal safety and usability will increase exponentially, too.

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