Last month, during my many-city book tour, I signed up for Gogo's in-flight wifi service. Today I discovered that it's much harder to get shut of it.
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Someone in the waiting area for AA's LAX-London flight created a network called "Al-Quida Free Terror Nettwork," so "out of an abundance of caution," everyone ran around like headless chickens for a while trying to figure out where the network name was coming from (cue horror music: "He's broadcasting from INSIDE THE TERMINAL!" Dun dun DUUUUN!).
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Open Wireless Movement, a joint project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Mozilla, Free Press and others, will reveal its sharing-friendly wifi router firmware at the HOPE X conference in NYC next month. The openwireless operating system allows you to portion out some of your bandwidth to share freely with your neighbors and passersby, while providing a high degree of security and privacy for your own communications.
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The Open Wireless Movement's goals are to both encourage the neighborliness that you get from sharing in your community, and undermining the idea that an IP address can be used to identify a person, establishing a global system of anonymous Internet connectivity. The project includes an excellent FAQ on the myths and facts about your legal liability for things that other people do with your network.
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The FCC has unanimously voted to open up 100MHz of spectrum at the bottom end of the 5GHz band, redesignating them as open spectrum, under rules similar to those that created the original Wifi boom. Previously, the spectrum had been exclusively allocated to a satellite telephony company. Adding more open spectrum is amazingly great news, and even better is the bipartisan support for the move, which was attended by very promising-sounding remarks from commissioners from both parties about the value of open spectrum as a source of innovation and public value.
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WiSee is a reasearch project at the University of Washington; as described in this paper, it uses standard WiFi hardware to sense the location and movements of people within range of the signal. Using machine-learning, it maps specific interference patterns to specific gestures, so that it knows that -- for example -- you're waving your hand in the air. This gesture-sensing can be used to control various devices in your home:
WiSee is a novel interaction interface that leverages ongoing wireless transmissions in the environment (e.g., WiFi) to enable whole-home sensing and recognition of human gestures. Since wireless signals do not require line-of-sight and can traverse through walls, WiSee can enable whole-home gesture recognition using few wireless sources (e.g., a Wi-Fi router and a few mobile devices in the living room).
WiSee is the first wireless system that can identify gestures in line-of-sight, non-line-of-sight, and through-the-wall scenarios. Unlike other gesture recognition systems like Kinect, Leap Motion or MYO, WiSee requires neither an infrastructure of cameras nor user instrumentation of devices. We implement a proof-of-concept prototype of WiSee and evaluate it in both an office environment and a two-bedroom apartment. Our results show that WiSee can identify and classify a set of nine gestures with an average accuracy of 94%...
WiSee takes advantage of the technology trend of MIMO, the fact that wireless devices today carry multiple antennas (which are primarily used to improve capacity). A WiSee/WiSee-enabled receiver would use these multiple antennas in a different way to focus only on the user in control, thus eliminating interference from other people.
Elliot Noss sez,
I thought you'd be interested in something we are helping with at SXSW this weekend. a group of folks are taking advantage of unlicensed radio spectrum to provide high-speed backhaul to local WiFi access points all over SXSW. In Austin, there are 14 of these open channels using whitespace that are available. we are leveraging this. on Tuesday, the FCC will close comments on its plan to auction off many of these "whitespaces. the 'We Heart Wifi' initiative is collecting signatures on the following petition. Even if folks aren't at SXSW, they can sign on:
To all FCC Commissioners:
Please follow through on your proposal to open up a large slice of high-quality spectrum for open networks. Doing so would help create the competition necessary to extend more high-speed broadband—including 'super WiFi' and other future innovations—to more people."
You may have heard Jill Lesser, Executive Director of the Center for Copyright Information, explain that America's six-strikes copyright punishment system would not harm open WiFi. Adi Kamdar explains why Ms Lesser's totally mistaken:
Termination may not be part of the CAS, but that's not the point—the program still uses "protecting copyright" as an excuse to seriously hinder a user's online experience. For example, CAS involves not just "education" but also "Mitigation Measures," such as slowing down Internet speeds to 256 kbps for days—rendering your connection all but unusable in today's era of videochats and Netflix.
Lesser doesn't think that's a problem. As she told the radio show On The Media: "The reduction of speed, which one or more of the ISPs will be using as a mitigation measure, is first of all only 48 hours, which is far from termination."
But that's 48 hours of lower productivity and limited communication across the globe, based on nothing more than a mere allegation of copyright infringement.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is stepping up its open wireless campaign, which encourages people and businesses to leave their Internet connections open to the public, and offers advice on doing this safely and sustainably. As EFF points out, most WiFi networks are latent for most of the time, and there are a million ways that leaving your network accessible to passersby or neighbors can really help out, from emergency access during disasters to the urgent need to send an email, look up a phone number, or check directions. EFF's Adi Kamdar writes,
We believe there are many benefits to having a world of open wireless. Two of the big ones for us have to do with privacy and innovation.
Open wireless protects privacy. By using multiple IP addresses as one shifts from wireless network to wireless network, you can make it more difficult for advertisers and marketing companies to track you without cookies. Activists can better protect their anonymous communication by using open wireless (though Tor is still recommended).
Innovations would also thrive: Smarter tablets, watches, clothing, cars—the possibilities are endless. In a future with ubiquitous open Internet, smartphones can take advantage of persistent, higher quality connections to run apps more efficiently without reporting your whereabouts or communications. Inventors and creators would not have to ask permission of cell phone companies to utilize their networks, both freeing up radio spectrum and reducing unnecessary barriers to entry.
This movement is just beginning, but in a sense it has always been around. People, businesses, and communities have already been opening up their wireless networks, sharing with their neighbors, and providing an important public good. We want this movement to grow without unnecessary legal fears or technical restraints.
A Finnish court has ruled that merely operating an open WiFi access point does not make you liable for copyright infringements committed on your network. From the defense attorney's press release:
This alleged copyright infringement had taken place in a specific 12-minute period in July 14 2010, a date when a summer theater play with an audience of around hundred people was held at the premises of the former school owned and resided by the lady.
The applicants were unable to provide any evidence that the connection-owner herself had been involved in the file-sharing. The court thus examined whether the mere act of providing a WiFi connection not protected with a password can be deemed to constitute a copyright-infringing act.
Crucially, the applicants also sought an injunction to prevent the defendant for committing any similar acts in the future. Had the injunction been granted, the legal status of various open WiFi providers would have turned out extremely difficult, as rights-owners would have been provided with a powerful legal weapon to shut them down in cases of similar, arguably insignificant infringements by incidental visitors and customers...
Finally, the court concluded that the WiFi owner cannot be deemed liable for the infringements actually committed by third parties.
Christopher sez, "We just released a 90 second animated video that explains why communities build their own broadband networks, often in competition with big cable. For those who want all the details, we just released a massive 75 page white paper examining 3 community fiber networks in depth - Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Bristol, Virginia that is available here."
Mathias Nitzsche had a nifty idea: using Wi-Fi network names to create a connection between the network's owner and those who spot it in their wireless networks list. His aptly named wifis.org site lets you pick a handle and advertise it through your network name, as in wifis.org/glennocschmidt. This creates an account for you on the site, and makes a Web form available at that address that sends email to your Google or Facebook email, whichever you used to create the registration. The visitor never sees your email address. (Nitzsche avoids having his own registration database, which removes some overhead and security risk associated with retaining passwords.)
I contacted Mathias to ask about privacy and security issues, as one might be concerned about email addresses being stored and the association of a Wi-Fi network name with such. He said (and his FAQ notes) that he doesn't reveal information to third parties. While he's based in Germany, his data and application is hosted in the Google App Engine in the United States.
I'd love to see a variant on this idea, in which an existing network name could be paired with a unique few letter long code that someone would then append to their network. Look up the code, and you'd get the same result. I admit Nitzsche's idea is neater, encoding the URL and the identifier all at once.
The New America Foundation's Open
Network Technology Initiative, a US State Department-funded project to build an "Internet in a suitcase" that can be dropped into repressive zones where protesters need network access and the state is trying to take it away. The project -- a very complex piece of technology -- has gotten to the point where it needs a live test, and lucky for the Open Technology engineers, Occupy DC is just down the street, and that's a great testbed.
The idea is that the system will automatically set itself up. Drop a unit near another unit and they’ll start talking to one another and trading data. Add another and all three will talk to one another. Add a thousand and you can cover a whole city. Then if one of those routers is hooked up to an internet connection, everyone on the network can connect. If that connection disappears, users can still try to update an application like Twitter or send e-mail to the larger internet and the outgoing notes will go into a holding pattern until the mesh network finds another connection to the greater net.
That’s harder to pull off in practice, even under ideal conditions — as anyone who’s tried to link even two Wi-Fi access points in their own home could attest. Now throw in the variables that the access points should work in urban and exposed environments, as well as protest zones like Tahir Square. You’ll want to protect dissidents with encryption and deniability. And you don’t want your beta-testers to be arrested or even killed because of a software bug. All together it’s the kind of challenge engineers like to call “non-trivial”.
“Finding a place to use the system is difficult,” Meinrath said. “Thank God for the Occupy movement.”
(Image: Brendan Hoffman/Wired.com)
In Airshark: Detecting Non-WiFi RF Devices using Commodity WiFi Hardware (PDF), researchers from U Wisconsin (Madison) document a firmware for WiFi access points that can detect and dynamically adjust to interference from vacuum cleaners, baby monitors, and other non-WiFi devices that operate in WiFi's radio spectrum. This kind of thing is the backbone of the theory of cognitive radio: devices that can use software defined radio, phased-array antennas, and cleverness to route around other devices in the band, which may, eventually, enable the a lot more data to occupy the radio spectrum. In Airshark's case, the cleverness is in using the wireless cards on the computers and other devices as a sensing array to triangulate on interference.
Airshark taps into the application programming interface of wireless cards used on access points to gather data about radio frequencies in the surrounding environment. The software has been trained to recognize signatures of various devices, and can pick them out from the ambient radio noise with more than 90% accuracy even if signals from multiple such devices are present.
False positives were .39% for environments with four or more interfering devices and using various signal strengths. The researchers found the rate was .068% for signals stronger than -80dBm. "We also found its performance to be comparable to a commercial signal analyzer," according to their research paper "Airshark: Detecting Non-WiFi RF Devices using Commodity WiFi Hardware."