[iDC] Wifi-Hog and Situated Tech in the City

Jonah Brucker-Cohen jonah at coin-operated.com
Wed Jul 19 12:10:01 EDT 2006

Hi all,
Here is some text I wrote about my "Wifi-Hog" project for my PhD 
thesis which specifically addresses situated tech and the city. This 
project has gotten a lot of criticism / debate in the past which has 
helped to strengthen its focus and lead to other / similar type 
interventions / ideas for future research and discussion. Hopefully 
it will bring up some interesting discussion on this list as well...

WiFi-Hog: From Reaction to Realization
by Jonah Brucker-Cohen

URL: http://www.coin-operated.com/projects/wifihog

When technologies are first introduced, hype usually follows. The 
hype naturally dissipates over time, but when news begins to spread 
about how people are using the technology, the hype machine begins to 
resurface. When I first heard about wireless internet (or 802.11b) 
back in early 1999, I ignored it. This was a technology that seemed 
very far off, as no computers were yet equipped with wireless 
receivers (except a few Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)). I heard 
about people using the technology in classrooms and hospitals, with 
very particular applications that seemed too particular for any 
mainstream adoption. A couple years went by and my ignoring continued.

A few years later, wireless internet (now affectionately called 
"Wi-Fi") began to resurface as reports of projects and public 
community networks began to sprout up. Now that Wi-Fi was being 
integrated into everything from laptops to portable stereo systems, 
my ignoring started to dissipate in the hype. Wireless was becoming 
cheap, pervasive, and simple to implement.
After hearing about the hype and projects, I began to notice 
something else that was happening in and around wireless nodes and 
their deployment. In August 2002, Slashdot ran an article about 
"Starbucks vs. Personal Telco Project (PTP)" [1] , a battle that was 
quietly taking place in Portland, Oregon's Pioneer Square. This was a 
challenge over public obstruction of wireless space, where corporate 
signal was out-blasting the pre-existing community signal. PTP had 
two 2 T1 connections with off the shelf routers setup providing free 
wireless access to anyone in the square. A few months later, 
Starbucks who partnered with T-mobile, set up in-store satellite 
Internet access that broadcasted on Channel 1 within the store and 
around the square. Channel 1 is the default connection found by most 
consumer wireless cards. As a result, since Starbuck's signal was 
stronger and its connection speed was faster than PTP, the once free 
network that pervaded the park had to close down. The struggle over 
claiming ownership of public spaces with wireless nodes was in full 

On a trip to the NYC Wireless [2] headquarters in 2002, I heard a 
story about how Verizon (a major telecommunications company in NYC) 
had started to put high-power wireless access points (APs) on the 
tops of all of their pay phone booths in the city. These blanketed 
every block of the city and were only available to customers of 
Verizon's DSL service. NYC Wireless had set up a free node from their 
office which was meant to reach the street below, but Verizon's 
corner payphone node was interfering with it. The problem was further 
reaching than I thought.
In 2003, I began working on a project called "Wifi-Hog" that was a 
direct reaction to the claim of ownership that corporations and 
individuals were placing on public wireless space. The project 
consisted of a laptop connected to a Portable Video Jammer (PVJ), and 
some custom circuitry that communicates to software on computer. The 
software was comprised of a packet sniffer (such as Carnivore [7]) 
and wireless stumbler (such as NetStumbler [4] which allows the 
software to find open networks) which monitors incoming packets from 
an open node. The idea was to only allow traffic originating from the 
Wifi-Hogger's IP address to access network, otherwise the PVJ is 
switched on, blocking others from connecting to the open node. Since 
most Wi-Fi networks operate on the un-licensed 2.4 GHZ band, jamming 
this spectrum is not illegal. There are over 100 websites that 
advertise and sell the PVJ, so finding one was relatively easy.

As mobile technology has entered public space and brought private 
conversations and interactions along with it, an interesting rift was 
forming between what is deemed acceptable usage. Wifi-Hog is 
specifically reacting to the lack of an "Acceptable Usage Policy" of 
wireless networks. Since these networks exist as private, public, and 
corporate monitored services, there is also confusion about rights 
ownership over networks in public spaces. Wifi-Hog is a tool that 
enables control over a specified network by someone who is not the 
network's administrator and looks specifically at what happens when 
these seemingly open networks are made exclusive and competitive. In 
a sense, Wifi-Hog exists as a tactical media tool for controlling and 
subverting this claim of ownership and regulation over free spectrum, 
by allowing a means of control to come from a third-party.

As mobile and wireless devices become more ubiquitous, free and 
public wireless nodes have gained high penetration. Free nodes are 
popping up in public parks, airport terminals, libraries, schools, 
and other venues worldwide. In addition to sanctioned spaces for the 
nodes, private nodes without encryption are leaking from offices and 
houses onto city and rural streets. Activities that exploited and 
actively seeked out these networks began to materialize. Some 
examples include the WARchalking [3] and WARdriving phenomenon (where 
you search for open nodes on city streets and mark their location 
with chalk) and artist interventions like "Noderunner" [5] and Blast 
Theory's "Can you see me now?" [6] which integrate urban street 
players with wireless connectivity. As the networks grew, especially 
in dense urban spaces, signals from private, public, and commercial 
(or paid) nodes began to interfere with each other. This spectrum 
overload brings up even more questions about how jurisdiction of 
signal is defined and who has precedence over others.

Looking specifically at free wireless access points, Wifi-Hog is also 
a reaction to the public spaces they inhabit. Wifi-Hog is a personal 
tool to enable both private interaction in public space as well as 
social obstruction and deconstruction of shared resources. This idea 
compares to similar situation of property acquisition in the before 
state-controlled zoning laws were put in place. Land was a public 
resource that had to be regulated due to misuse and territorial 
disputes. My aim was to investigate how wireless networks could also 
fall into this predicament since they can leak or pervade from 
private to public spaces. This containment issue might also allow for 
third parties to disrupt or interfere with them.

An interesting example of this type of territorial dispute occurred 
the United States in the late 19th century. The Homestead Act of 1862 
provided that unoccupied public land be transferred to a homesteader 
after five years of residence. This was an act sanctioned by the US 
government to create a system of land grants to encourage settlers to 
develop the then uninhabited West. In effect, the Homestead Act was a 
pay off for settling in the region. The idea behind Wifi-Hog counters 
this since it represents an almost "hostile" takeover of this land. 
Imagine if you had lived on the land for 3 years, it was still in the 
public domain, but you had invested your life into it, and someone 
came along and fenced off the land with a barrier you could not 
penetrate. In this case you do not have any legal right to the land, 
but you still feel as if it is yours since it has been in your 
custody for 3 years. This is a scenario closely linked to Wifi-Hog's 
premise that a public wireless network maybe be partially owned or 
controlled by someone, but it can nevertheless be taken away and 
controlled. The project sends a clear message to groups attempting to 
claim ownership over a public space by demonstrating that their 
network can be easily jammed and controlled by others. An example of 
its use might be for an individual to use Wi-Fi Hog to disrupt a 
corporate signal and let a weaker, but free node exist in the same 
space. This signifies a loss of control by providers and sparks a 
challenge to their "land-grabbing" attitudes.

Since the project was introduced, most of the reaction from wireless 
communities has been negative. This mostly stems from 
misunderstandings of why the project exists and how it was presented. 
Most people were upset that I was "advertising" the PVJ as something 
that could disrupt all of the progress and work that had been done to 
create open networks. My focus at first was to disprove the fact that 
wireless was leading us into a "utopian" world where networks would 
be everywhere and people would work harmoniously beside each other. I 
see this as a simplistic view that fails to see the conflicts of 
ownership and the complex integration and use of wireless in public 
spaces. Some thought that my project created rifts in the "community 
nodes" that existed such as London's Consume.net [8] or NYC 
Wireless's wireless parks, since I was promoting a disruptive tool. 
 From a discussion on the NYC Wireless list, some comments about the 
project were made evident by an anonymous poster:

"If I remember the way NYC Wireless, etc started out, the very act of 
putting up public wireless nodes was to exert territoriality - we 
were claiming the public parks as free Wi-Fi zones, and betting that 
these would deter pay providers from locating there. To a large 
degree this has turned out to be an accurate prediction. We were also 
trying to re-contextualize networks within local places, grounding 
them in real urban communities rather than having them exist in some 
kind of an abstract non-geographic cyberspace. I have to agree that 
this project doesn't seem to be terribly sophisticated, and is very 
reactionary. It is a yes/no proposition, without any selectivity. You 
might just as well just be climbing atop the maintenance shed in 
Bryant Park and plugging / unplugging the antenna lead." (August 2003)

Despite the mixed reactions and confusion surrounding the point of 
the project and its execution, the problem it addresses remains 
important. As spectrum overcrowding becomes more common in cities, 
the conflict between for-pay and free nodes will reach a critical 
point. Companies will have to enforce strict delineation of their 
signal strength so that free networks cannot impede on their business 
models and vise versa. Projects like WiFi-Hog are clear and critical 
reminders that wireless networking is still a young technology that 
displaces architectural and social boundaries. This distinction is 
important for the future of wireless and the communities that support 
its development.

1. Slashdot, August 2002 
2. NYC Wireless (http://www.nycwireless.org)
3. WARchalking (Wireless Access Router) (http://www.warchalking.org)
4. NetStumbler (http://www.netstumbler.com)
5. Noderunner (http://www.noderunner.com)
6. Blast Theory, "Can You See Me Now?", (http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk)
7. Carnivore, (http://www.rhizome.org/carnivore).
8. Consume.net (http://www.consume.net)
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