The Joys — and Dangers — of Wireless Internet

August 2005

A number of years ago at a restaurant a middle-aged woman seated with her husband at the next table remarked on the dessert I was eating: “That looks so good. I wish I could eat that, but I can’t. When I was younger I couldn’t afford desserts, and now that I’m older and have enough money to eat whatever I want, I can’t.”

One of life’s ironies.

I thought of that the other day when I read about “evil twin wireless hotspots.” Wireless is so cool and so much fun. I’d been looking forward to ever more wireless access, but now I read about the dangers. And like the dessert, one must indulge either not at all or with caution. Sigh.

Wireless is cheap. You can buy a PCI or PCMCIA wireless card for your computer for as little as $12 or $15. Then if you have a laptop or portable device, you can access the Internet wherever there’s a wireless hotspot — every airport, many cafes, hotel lobbies, and wherever you can find one.

Picture this: my friend Ken was sitting in a local bookstore/café with his laptop and was connected to the Internet via their free wireless hotspot. He called me via the videoconferencing software on Macintosh computers and we had a chat, seeing full-motion video of each other as we talked. He took the small video camera connected to his laptop and pointed it around the store so I could see what was going on. All via wireless.

Or picture this: I’m sitting in the recreation center waiting for my tennis partner. The rec center has a free wireless hotspot, so I take out my wireless-enabled Pocket PC, connect to the Internet, and then watch MSNBC videos of news reports while I’m waiting.

These days you can find wireless hotspots almost anywhere. About a year ago, a friend of mine drove around Fairfield and found 46 open wireless hotspots. Some of those are deliberately open for public access, but others are simply networks that people haven’t secured. One person commented in an Internet discussion that the challenge used to be finding a wireless hotspot. Now when he uses his wireless software to see what networks are available, the challenge is choosing from among all those in the list.

One reason that hotspots are so ubiquitous is that wireless routers have also become very cheap. I bought a wireless router for $10 (after rebate). I can plug my DSL Ethernet cable into the router and then access the Internet untethered, with a high-quality signal anywhere within about a 175-foot range of the device. This lets me use my Internet connection on my Pocket PC and my laptop at the same time (something I need to do when I’m writing for Pocket PC magazine about web sites designed for access via small-screened devices).

How can you find a hotspot? There are many web sites that offer hotspot directories. Just Google for “wireless hotspots.” All of the directories are woefully incomplete. Of all the directories I tried, only one listed a hotspot for Fairfield — and that was a company that burned down over a year ago. On the other hand, if you’re going to a larger city, the directories are quite useful. The best directory I’ve found is Yahoo’s: mobile.yahoo.com/wifi. For free hotspots, try www.wififreespot.com.

Many hotspots cost money. Typical costs range from $2–6 per hour to $8–10 per day. Monthly rates are also available. When I started up my laptop in an airport, the hotspot immediately put my web browser in the foreground and connected to the web page giving rates for the T-Mobile hotspot there.

Some cities are even creating citywide free wireless access.

All well and good. I’m a happy camper — lots of access to the Internet wherever I go. Enter the “evil twins.”

Just when it was getting fun, crooks found a way to make it dangerous. You go into a Starbucks expecting to pay $5 for a day of wireless access. In your connection panel you notice that not only is the Starbucks wireless network available, but also a free one.

No brainer, right? You go for the free one. Bad idea. It’s very possible that it’s an “evil twin” — an Internet gateway set up by a thief for the purpose of logging everything you type, including passwords. Read more about this growing problem on the Scambusters web site at www.scambusters.org/eviltwin.html.

Bottom line: don’t use a free wireless hotspot unless you’re confident of the source. And watch those desserts, too.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen