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Simson Garfinkel

A View from Simson Garfinkel

Free-Wireless Utopia

The rules and manners of the wireless commons are emerging on the West Coast.

  • January 3, 2007

Most places I’ve been in Monterey, CA (where I have been doing some research), have some kind of free-wireless Internet access available. While some of it is through a service that runs my Internet traffic through a proxy server and shows me advertisements, most of it is through open access points run by small businesses, restaurants, and home owners.

This is the future that Nicholas Negroponte predicted, of course. Years ago he said that there would be lots of free wireless around cities. When people asked him who would fund it, he said that it would be funded through the same mechanism that funds flower boxes: people would do it out of the goodness of their hearts because it doesn’t cost much and it makes the world a better place.

I believed Nick back then, and I opened up the wireless access point at my house in Massachusetts. I learned my lesson later, when a neighbor’s daughter came home for Christmas break, and her infested laptop associated with my access point and started trying to infect the Internet with the Code Red virus. My ISP told me to shut down the machine or get disconnected, with a $200 reconnection fee. So I put a password on the access point–and that was that.

Apparently, those kinds of things don’t happen much out here in California.

The other thing that I don’t see much out here is “camping”–that is, people camping out at coffee shops, turning the public space into their personal offices. Camping has become a big problem in Cambridge, MA, at coffee shops like 1369 and Simon’s, but I haven’t seen much evidence of it here.

The law seems to be really unclear about using other people’s wireless without their explicit permission. In some cases, people have gone to jail for breaking into wireless and using it, but those people were also engaged in criminal activity like spamming and child porn. My feeling is that it is so easy to put a password on a wireless access point, and there has been so much news coverage of the issue, that anybody who has an open access point is almost certainly intentionally leaving it open so that others can use it too.

There’s another indication that the wireless access point I’m using is intentionally open: it allows Web browsing, but it blocks outgoing port 25, which would be used by spammers.

Simson Garfinkel is a Technology Review contributing editor. He researches computer forensics at the Center for Research on Computation and Society at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

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