I think that it is probably safe to say that most of us are completely addicted to our mobile devices — maybe even more so than we realize. Being the completely delusional type, I like to tell myself that I’m not all that addicted to my devices. Of course, this illusion comes crashing down every time that I travel internationally and am unable to use my smartphone’s cellular capabilities or get WiFi access.
Last year I had to take a space medicine course in preparation for an eventual trip to space. Although I learned all kinds of great information about medicine, trauma care, wilderness survival, and post-landing contingencies, one of the best lessons of all was that of accountability.
Most of the simulations that I was put through in the class involved a spacecraft crashing in a horrific manner… um… I mean making an off-nominal landing. Those of us on the flight crew had to diagnose and treat each other’s simulated injuries and survive in the wilderness until help could arrive.
After each simulation, there was an exhaustive debrief in which we would discuss the simulation in granular detail, including what we did right and what we did wrong. It was before one such debrief that a close friend and instructor told us that we should always be the hardest on ourselves and critique our own mistakes before bringing up anyone else’s. While this works well for simulations, I think that works equally well for life in general (even though I’m not actually criticizing anyone). So in the spirit of this lesson, here is my own “WiFi desperation story.”
What have I done?
Back in 2001, I was attending a tech conference in another city. This was at the height of the infamous dot-com crash, and like pretty much everyone else at the conference, I had suffered a major financial loss and was doing my best to avoid spending any money unnecessarily (a publication that I was writing for at the time had paid for my flight and hotel).
The hotel where I was staying wanted $18 per day for WiFi access. I needed to get online, but under the circumstances, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend that much. Free public WiFi hotspots weren’t widely available at the time, so I had to find another way to get online.
Laptops at that time didn’t include integrated WiFi. Wireless network access was provided through an add-on card. To make a long story short, my WiFi card had a jack for an external antenna. A vendor at the conference had loaned me an access point that I was supposed to take home and write a review. I ended up disassembling the access point, removed the antenna, and rigged it to connect to my WiFi card. With my makeshift external antenna strategically placed in the window of my room, I was able to connect to a hotel down the street that didn’t charge for WiFi access. Incidentally, I put the access point back together later on and wrote the review as promised.
Mundane by today’s standards
Aside from the part about MacGyvering an external antenna, my story is pretty mundane. While preparing to write this article, I asked several people what extremes they had endured to gain WiFi access. Almost everybody I asked confessed to sponging off of an open router, whether it belonged to a neighbor or a coffee shop. However, it’s not so much the unauthorized connection that makes for a great story as what it took to get a signal in the first place. People told me stories of holding their device out an open window, climbing onto the roof of a building, and even using an app to find hidden access points.
I’m definitely not the only person to make use of external antennas. Shortly after my trip to the conference that I mentioned earlier, stories began coming out about hackers building external antennas out of Pringles cans WiFi networks of the time commonly had a maximum range of a few hundred feet. The Pringles can antenna allegedly allowed hackers to connect to WiFi networks at a distance of up to 10 miles, assuming that they were within the line of site.
Even though I haven’t heard of anyone using a Pringles can antenna in a long time, there is a modern equivalent. Right now, people are building crude directional antennas out of soda cans and using them to enable (or strengthen) connectivity to distant access points. There are several variations on this one. The author of this article compares the soda can antenna to putting aluminum foil on TV rabbit ears (wow, I feel old). However, other variations of the design allow the soda can to function as a parabolic reflector that can focus a weak signal onto an external antenna. In case you are wondering, you can still buy USB WiFi adapters with external antennas.
Taking a cue from drone pilots
If you don’t feel like building a Pringles can antenna, and don’t want to risk slicing your hand open on razor-sharp metal that used to be a soda can, there is another trick that you can use to gain access to distant access points. Get a drone antenna. Many consumer drones are WiFi based. The drone that I fly has a stock range of about half a mile, but with the right antenna, it is possible to fly for three miles without using a signal booster. I have heard a few unconfirmed stories of people using these antennas on more traditional computing devices to gain access to distant access points.
Taking to the water
There are plenty of outrageous things that people have done to gain access to WiFi, but I especially enjoyed one particular story that I recently read on social media. While on a camping trip with his family, this person resorted to kayaking to the middle of a lake in the hopes that being in an unobstructed area might help him to get a signal from somewhere. I have no idea as to whether or not the guy’s efforts were fruitful, but the story illustrates just how crazy things can get when we are deprived of WiFi.
One of the more creative WiFi desperation stories that I have heard involved someone who was using the free WiFi access at an airport. Even though the connection was indeed free, it was limited to 20 minutes. To avoid being cut off (or possibly to avoid having to pay, I’m not sure which), this person resorted to using MAC address spoofing. There are plenty of free utilities available that allow you to temporarily change your computer’s MAC address. One such utility is SpoofMAC.
Arrested for WiFi access?
So what’s the most extreme thing that you can imagine someone doing in an effort to get WiFi access? How about going to jail? OK, I seriously doubt that anyone has intentionally gotten themselves arrested just to get online, but as strange as it sounds, getting arrested for using public WiFi is actually a thing.
There have been a number of cases in various states in which people have been arrested for using public WiFi from the comfort of their car. Michigan, for example, has a Fraudulent Access to Computers, Computer Systems, and Computer Networks law. If a business provides free WiFi access to customers, and someone leaches off of the network without actually purchasing anything, then it is supposedly a violation of the law. The maximum penalty is a five-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. The point is that there can be consequences to gaining WiFi access through questionable means, so be careful out there.
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