Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s hardly a surprise that American airports are some of the most paranoid locations on earth these days. Sitting here in O’Hare, the disembodied announcer alternates between reminding us that the Chicago Police are just itching to destroy our carry-on baggage should we leave it momentarily unattended, and reminders that the terror level has been raised to (dramatic pause) “orange”. Of course, the terror level was raised to orange on all plane flights on August 10, 2006 and hasn’t dropped since – it’s hard to read the announcements every five minutes as anything other than “The US government would like to remind you that you should be very, very nervous. Are you nervous yet?”

But the paranoia’s not limited to terrorism – yes, the bad guys are on the internets as well! Connect to the “concourse” wifi at O’Hare, run by Boingo, and you get a wonderfully paranoid pop-up window, declaring that free wi-fi is too good to be true. Specifically, it wanrs you that “some unscrupulous individual users, however, by changing their laptop SSID to read ‘Free Wi-Fi’ then broadcast it, attempt to lure other users to join them in a de fact ‘open network’. While this may be no more than a prank, it’s concievable that these unscrupulous users could then invite unsuspecting users to share personal info.”

Ooh! Sharing! Spooky! The notice goes on to tell you not to connect to the free networks and offers reassurance that “To date, no Chicago Airport Wi-Fi network (or any other Concourse airport network) has been ‘hacked’ or suffered a significant security breach, precisely because of these security measures.”

The network ID on my laptop quite often reads “Free Wifi” or “Open Wifi”. That’s because I frequently go to conferences where wifi is expensive, or nonexistent, and I connect my Mac to ethernet and use it as an open wifi node. This is pretty common practice, as are communitarian open wireless networks like CuWin and commercial semi-open wireless networks like Fon (a company I’m on the advisory board of.) In other words, there’s a lot of open wireless networks out there run by folks who are neither unscrupulous or pranksters.

Yes, because Boingo has a monopoly in O’Hare, you probably won’t be able to get online from one of these free nodes. But this paranoid warning message seems designed to scare potential users away from all open networks, not just these open networks.

I’ve been watching computers go on and off the wifi here – I’ve seen four different variants of “free wifi” appear in different SSIDs. Somehow I doubt this is the result of a hacker plague here in the airport – I assume it’s got more to do with other geeks thumbing their nose at Boingo’s fear, uncertainty and doubt…

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3 Responses to Be afraid. Be very afraid.

  1. Frankenstein says:

    I think that part of it is also the fact that it’s ridiculously easy in Windows (XP at least) to accidentally set up a wireless network when you’re trying to connect to a wireless network.

  2. AfroM says:

    I couldn’t help but chuckle and relate to what you write about here, my flight from Ohare on Monday was delayed significantly… The voice that warns of the threat level is emphatic and scary indeed.

    As for the free wifi threat, i will admit to being paranoid and not connecting to the free wifi networks in the area.

    (Thanks for the link to Fon afew days back, i received my free La Fonera just yesterday!)

  3. During a recent stop over in Philly I actually discovered and reported some unattended backage. No-one had a clue what the procedure was and it was simply left unattended for some time. Finally, the police showed up, thus attracting the owner who was then scolded. Neither the owner nor the backage was destroyed.

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