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The N&O on Hot Spots

From an article on Wi-Fi hot spots in the Raleigh News & Observer:

One of the biggest drawbacks for a business that offers Wi-Fi access is the possibility of Internet poachers. The area within a router's broadcast range -- usually about 300 feet -- is a "hot spot" where users with wirelessly enabled PDAs or laptops can log on.

If an access point's signal isn't encrypted, anyone with the right tech gear can get access to the Internet. If the signal is strong enough, someone can simply park their car outside a business, log on and sap the network -- and possibly snoop into private files on other computers on the network -- without ever going in and making a purchase.

[Thad] Culley, manager of The Regulator [Bookshop Cafe in Durham], has dealt with such "squatters."

Normally, the cafe's network can handle six to eight users, depending on whether one of the users is downloading a large file. If someone outside tries to log on to the network, they can cause the system to slow down or crash entirely. That's when Culley goes outside and confronts the freeloader.

"I just explain to them that it's making my service not work," he said. "Most people are really understanding."

I'll leave aside the issue of confusing encryption with access control. Public hot spots are always unencrypted -- if they required encryption, the challenge would be too much for most users, and they wouldn't log on. Access-controlled networks such as T-Mobile's are unencrypted but password-protected. I can sit in my car outside a Starbucks and reload T-Mobile's sign-in page as much as I like, but that's all I'll be able to do, since I have to sign in to go beyond that page.

I'll also leave aside the canard about snooping into private files. It's not the reporter's fault that she makes the same mistake made by most journalists, portraying unencrypted networks as inherently insecure (and, by inference, encrypted networks as inherently secure). Anyone who treats physical access to their network as their line of defense -- allowing unlimited access to sensitive resources once inside -- is foolish and will probably get their just desserts soon enough.

No, my beef is with the bookshop manager, and the implication that the use of an open Wi-Fi access point without patronizing the establishment offering it is somehow "squatting". Let me make it plain and simple: the airwaves -- especially the airwaves at 2.4 GHz -- belong to us all. It's absurd to operate an open access point, broadcasting a signal beyond the confines of one's business, and then complain when someone outside the business makes use of it. In fact, I find it not only absurd, but offensive. If The Regulator Bookshop Cafe wants to stop outsiders from using its access point, it would be simple enough for them to set up a sign-in system and offer passwords with purchases (this is how McDonald's does it). Until then, if they are going to send their open Wi-Fi signal out into the street and beyond, then I'm within both the letter and the spirit of the law to use it as I see fit.

I'm tempted to make a trip to Durham to sit outside The Regulator, use its Wi-Fi access point without making a purchase, and then when questioned, politely explain that I have no intention whatsoever of stopping.

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Comments

Well, I certainly don't want to offend; yes it is free for all enjoy, that is why I would leave it on after hours. The reporter asked me a scenario question, one I have never actually lived out, and I told her that I would make them aware that they were hurting my business, i.e. their free access point. I provided it as a service to patrons and would hope for a little reciprocation or at least respect. Before you get in a huff, I am one of the good guys, an independent business trying to make it all work. Starbucks can afford to give it away and they don't, go get angry at them. BTW, I moved so don't storm in to complain, the new manager is a very lovely and sweet young woman.

I know this is a delayed reaction... hey I googled myself a year after the fact.

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