If you end up doing a lot of work in airports or coffee shops or places where you need wireless internet access, you've probably come across an option called Free Public WiFi, and you've also probably come to the sad realization that it never works. So we asked producer Travis Larchuk to investigate.
And, Travis, what have you found?
TRAVIS LARCHUK: All right. Well, like a lot of people, I've been duped into trying to connect to this free public WiFi thing from my laptop.
LARCHUK: And it turns out that there is a story behind this. I called up a wireless security expert named Joshua Wright to tell me the story behind Free Public WiFi.
Mr. JOSHUA WRIGHT (Wireless Security Expert): Many years ago at an airport, I went to connect to an available wireless network and I saw this option, Free Public WiFi. And as I looked more and more, I saw this in more and more locations. And I was aware from my job and from analysis in the field that this wasn't a sanctioned, provisioned wireless network, but it was actually something rogue.
RAZ: Now, Travis, when he says rogue, does he mean a virus?
LARCHUK: Well, it's actually more interesting than your run-of-the-mill computer virus. This one didn't spread over the Internet. It couldn't because when you try to connect to this, you don't get the Internet.
LARCHUK: It actually spread more like a human virus, or Joshua Wright likens it to a zombie plague.
Mr. WRIGHT: Where a zombie takes hold of one person, bites them, whatever, and then they become infected with this zombie virus.
Unidentified Woman: He's a dead man walking. He just doesn't know it yet.
RAZ: Nice touch there, Travis. Okay, so I'm not following zombie virus.
LARCHUK: All right. Well, Free Public WiFi isn't set up like most networks that you use to get online.
LARCHUK: Instead, it's what's called an ad hoc network. And what that means is that instead of connecting to a normal wireless hot spot...
RAZ: Like T-Mobile or Linksys or one of those that you see.
LARCHUK: Right. Instead of connecting to one of those to get online, you're actually connecting directly to someone else's computer. Someone who's, say, at the same airport or coffee shop or apartment building as you are.
RAZ: So you're connecting to someone else's computer? I mean, I'm that person who always tries to connect to the Free Public WiFi in the hopes that it's going to work this time. But basically, I'm giving, you know, someone in the airport or Starbucks access to my computer?
LARCHUK: Well, the short answer there is yes. You don't have to worry too much because the person would have to, A, be a bad person and, B, know how to do it, have the technical knowledge of how to do it. Joshua Wright knows how to do this. He's not a bad person but he does do this professionally for companies that want to find out if they have vulnerabilities in their wireless networks. And if he is hired to do this and he sees Free Public WiFi...
Mr. WRIGHT: We break out the champagne, because I know at that point I will be able to get unlimited access to internal resources just from that one starting point.
RAZ: That is creepy. So why do so many computers have that Free Public WiFi option at all when you try to get online?
LARCHUK: Well, I got in touch with someone from Microsoft who explained that it's actually because of this old bug in Windows XP that's still around, because a lot of people haven't updated their computers. And if you're one of those people, when you connect to Free Public WiFi, your computer will remember that you did that and in the future, it'll try to be helpful and, without asking you, it'll automatically set up its own ad hoc network called Free Public WiFi. And this is how it's spread across the country.
RAZ: Wow. So how do I protect my laptop?
LARCHUK: Well, if you're not running Windows XP, the main thing is just resist the urge to log into Free Public WiFi or really any network that you don't recognize. If you are running Windows XP, there is a way to make sure that you're up-to-date. And you can find more information about that at npr.org.
RAZ: That's NPR producer Travis Larchuk on the case of the mysterious Free Public WiFi.
Travis, thank you so much.
LARCHUK: Sure thing, Guy.
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