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The History Of The (Fake) 'Free Public WiFi' You Always See At Airports

from the an-accidental-XP-virus dept

If you travel a fair bit, as I do, you've noticed at almost every airport that there's an "ad hoc" (i.e., computer-to-computer rather than computer-to-WiFi) option called "Free Public WiFi." It seems to be everywhere. I've never connected to it, because I know enough not to connect to an ad hoc offering, but I was always amazed at the fact that I see it in pretty much every airport I've been to. I had wondered if it was a honeypot scam for a while, but I couldn't believe that scammers would be able to set up such honeypots in so many airports worldwide and no one would catch them and take it down. So how could there be such "Free Public WiFi" (which obviously was not what it claimed to be) in so many places?

The answer? Well, it's all Microsoft's fault.

Apparently, there was a bit of a bug (one of many...) in Windows XP in terms of how it handles certain situations, and it effectively created a "virus" in that unwitting travelers around the globe are all broadcasting "Free Public WiFi" from their computers without realizing it, after they tried to connect to such a network:
When a computer running an older version of XP can't find any of its "favorite" wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -- in this case, "Free Public WiFi." Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. And who can resist the word "free?"

Not a lot of people, judging from the spread of Free Public WiFi. Computers with the XP bug that try to connect to the Internet will remember the name, create their own ad hoc networks and entice other users wherever they go.
And so it continues to spread. No one's quite sure where it started, but somewhere way back when, someone set up such an ad hoc network in an airport (perhaps as a joke or a honeypot), and it got picked up by others... and then it just continued spreading. Eventually, it should die out as Windows XP machines finally go extinct, but for now, enjoy (but don't bother connecting) the "Free Public WiFi" found in so many airports...


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    weneedhelp (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:14am

    Apparently, there was a bit of a bug

    In a Microsoft product? I don't believe it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:26am

    "Eventually, it should die out as Windows XP machines finally go extinct..."

    It might take a while. According to some numbers (sorry, no citations, I don't remember where I saw it :( ), about 60% of current windows machines are still running XP (some people are just "happy" with what XP offers, for various different reasons). I personally don't see myself switching away from XP for a while. I only use it for gaming and the "Vista Series" just don't offer enough RtB.

     

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  3.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:28am

    Glad to see this.
    I'd been wondering why you see these ad hoc networks at every airport for the last 5 years or so.
    One of life's mysteries solved!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    fogbugzd (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:43am

    sp3

    XP service pack 3 fixed the problem. So if you see a Free Public Wifi or hp printserver in an airport it probably means the system is missing a bunch of security updates. This situation effectively advertises that the computer is at risk. You might as well hang out a sign that says, "Please hack into this computer. It is sitting wide open."

     

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  5.  
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    fogbugzd (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:43am

    sp3

    XP service pack 3 fixed the problem. So if you see a Free Public Wifi or hp printserver in an airport it probably means the system is missing a bunch of security updates. This situation effectively advertises that the computer is at risk. You might as well hang out a sign that says, "Please hack into this computer. It is sitting wide open."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
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    reboog711, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:50am

    I've seen this more in Hotels than Airports

    I see this more commonly in hotels than airports. ;)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
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    Derek, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:56am

    worth noting

    Hard to believe I'm defending (sort of) Microsoft, but as mentioned in the article, this is an old bug.

    It was fixed with XP Service Pack 3. If I had an XP computer that was last updated two years ago, it would be safe from this one.

    Not that it's any palliative, but people running around with Windows computers that out of date likely have way bigger problems than the ad-hoc exploit.

    Some of those computers will be so compromised and laden with adware, download accelerators and toolbars that they can barely get online at all. Others will be the same machines flinging shit at those aware enough to keep their computers reasonably protected, if not avoid Windows altogether.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    ntlgnce, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:02am

    Has this "Microsoft" error been verified? as I have several XP pc's that are not up to date. So I tried to recreate this error with my computers. I didnt find any new adhock networks ( after disconnecting my wireless connection, I changed the name of it, and left the XP computers to try to connect to the old network. I then tried searching for my old network name. Nothing... It would appear that at the airport you were hacked my friend. Perhaps you should put the blaim to where it truely belongs, on your own lack of security. What we have here is an ID Ten T error..

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:19am

    Re:

    Yes, it has been verified. This is actually a pretty well known issue and as stated, was fixed years ago. I'm kinda surprised this has gotten some press. People running around with years-out-of-date patching on a 10-year-old operating system is the norm.

    Maybe you should get your system up-to-date, preferably with something other than a decade old OS, before you start calling others idiots for not knowing hwo to secure their systems. Also, your "testing" missed the key element of actually connecting to an ad hoc network first.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:24am

    Back when I was younger and meaner, I set up a guest network called FreePublicWiFi or FreeInternet at my apartment. They were only able to download at 100 Kbps and all of the good stuff was blocked. Rummaged through their computers for music and programs though. Found some interesting pics and some good indie music.

    Ah, those were the days.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Bobo Bolinski, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:28am

    FPWiFi

    If you think this is just a small thing. Try putting up a wireless network for a trade show or large press event. Devices try to attach to ALL the remembered SSID's and the latency goes through the roof of the building.

     

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  12.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 11:39am

    Re:

    I saw those same numbers, 60%, but that was a few months ago. The number has dropped, slowly.

    As for upgrading, if your PC runs, don't. Just make sure you're on SP3. When it dies, I recommend Windows 7. It does provide better support for gaming.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 12:06pm

    Re:

    you should probably make sure you understand the issue before you go calling people idiots.
    And how do you figure he was hacked because he's seeing other people with a Free Public WiFi ssid?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 12:10pm

    Re: I've seen this more in Hotels than Airports

    Mike, your post doesn't cover everything that is going with regard to open ad hoc networks while traveling.
    As noted in the above comment, you do indeed see this open ad hoc connections more in hotels than airports, and it isn't necessarily because unwitting travelers are ignorant of the need for patches. Some people who, for various reasons must pay for an internet connection in a hotel, then proceed to open up ad hoc network sharing of their internet connection as a (passive agressive) protest against the the internet charges their hotel is levying which they deem to be too high. Do a little reading on the web and you can find discussions of exactly this issue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    OldSchool, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 1:12pm

    Welcome to 2010. You have been sleeping for the last 10 years.

    This has been known since about 2001.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 1:47pm

    Re:

    You blaim [sic] him, and say he was hacked because he viewed the SSID "Free Public WiFi"?

    I'm quite sure viewing SSID broadcasts is not a threat vector. If so, Google streetview systems would be the most virus-laden computers in the land.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 1:49pm

    Re: Welcome to 2010. You have been sleeping for the last 10 years.

    The word "History" in the title eluded you?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Sam, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 2:42pm

    Re: sp3

    Uh, sorry, I have SP3 on a fresh install and I still get this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 3:03pm

    I made Free Public WiFi at my school in like... 2004. Not sure who was ever the first to do this but when I suddenly started seeing these in major cities close to me I wondered if students from my city were going back home with it in their XP laptops.

    I even wrote an article about it.

    http://www.eanbowman.com/blog/2010/08/15/free-public-wifi/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 4:52pm

    Not A Virus, A Prion

    I think “prion” is a better biological analogy than “virus”. If genetic material is analogous to code, then this “Free Public WiFi” has none. It is, in effect, a rogue, self-propagating configuration state of the system—which is exactly what a prion is.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Freak, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 6:16pm

    More recently . . .

    There's an actual non-virus that took advantage of a security fault in OS X more recently, about a year ago, which infected other macs that tried to connect to "Free Public Wifi".
    The only effect was to make it broadcast that network name and pass it on further. Thus why I call it a non-virus.

    To my understanding, it was purposely made to catch attention and make someone patch the bug. So it only spread for about 10 days until a patch was made and distributed. In those ten days, it spread ridiculously far; China, Northern Canada (NORTHERN Canada), Sweden and Argentina all had confirmed cases of this on OS X machines.

    No patch was ever made to remove the harmless non-virus. So some macs still advise it, but it can't spread anymore.

    So yeah, just in case some of you had tracked down the signals and were scratching your heads at why some macs were broadcasting a known windows thing . . . now you know.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Modplan (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 7:46pm

    There's a great episode of a show called Hak5 that deals specifically with this, using a device called the pineapple where you can fool people to connect to the pineapple to become a man in the middle.

    http://www.hak5.org/episodes/episode-705

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Tyler, Oct 11th, 2010 @ 8:05pm

    You don't understand what the words "ad hoc" mean. It means something inserted into an argument so as to make it work in an last effort attempt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Oct 11th, 2010 @ 10:03pm

    Re:

    You don't understand what the words "ad hoc" mean. It means something inserted into an argument so as to make it work in an last effort attempt.

    Heh. I understand what it means in the linguistic context quite well. But I also understand that it has a meaning in wireless networking:

    http://compnetworking.about.com/cs/wirelessfaqs/f/adhocwireless.htm

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    icon
    RandomGuy (profile), Oct 12th, 2010 @ 1:24am

    Re: Not A Virus, A Prion

    As a molecular biologist I totally agree with your statement, but prion is hardly in the common vernacular.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    I.D.GUY, Oct 12th, 2010 @ 2:49am

    HI I CAN MAKE ANYONE A I.D. THAT WILL SCAN AND HAVE HOLOGRAM, AND IT WILL PASS ALL UV LIGHT TEST. YOU WILL BE ABLE TO USE THIS I.D. ANYWHERE AT THE BARS,CLUBS,STORES,AND BANKS. THIS WILL BE A FLAWLESS I.D. COMING FROM ME IF YOU WANT MORE INFORMATION EMAIL WORKSTUDIO360@GMAIL.COM

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    TehZomB, Oct 12th, 2010 @ 3:34am

    Yeah, I remember a bunch of those near my hotel in Baltimore, about a block away from the BCC. I would be in between without reception, but in one place or the other I could connect to it. Funny thing was, one or two of the other random unsecured networks in the BCC would actually work.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
    identicon
    Rekrul, Oct 12th, 2010 @ 8:03am

    It's not a bug, it's a feature!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
    icon
    Peter da SIlva (profile), Oct 12th, 2010 @ 9:38am

    Re: "ad hoc"

    You're thinking of "ad hominem".

    Now I want to make a joke RFC about "ad hominem access points".

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Jean, Oct 13th, 2010 @ 8:49am

    This is a very old bug and was already fixed by WindowsXP. People should update their computers=)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 8:42am

    Re:

    Wow. "Vista Series" and you wrote this on Oct 11th, 2010. We all know Vista was a complete failure and was just another pushed release of crap like WinME was. Try windows 7, you'll leave your XP behind.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32.  
    identicon
    keyword marketing tool, Oct 22nd, 2010 @ 2:25am

    You have made valid points in your post and I agree with you!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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    scrapbooking layout ideas, Nov 17th, 2010 @ 5:22pm

    This is a really excellent read for me. Must agree that you are one of the coolest bloggers I ever saw. Thanks for posting this useful article.

     

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  34.  
    identicon
    Hp Computers, Dec 9th, 2010 @ 3:22am

    The History Of The (Fake) 'Free Public WiFi' You Always See At Airports

    I would like to appreciate the work of blog author that the person provided us with an extremely excellent information regarding the topic. I really learned something from this blog and started to contribute my ideas via commenting on this blog. Keep it up!

     

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  36.  
    identicon
    Super999, May 1st, 2011 @ 6:42pm

    "Free Public WiFi"

    I come across most of this Free Public WiFi networks and none of them worked for browsing Internet! But I heard that we can browse the files on the ad-hoc network's host computer.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
    identicon
    Jordan, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 7:48am

    Most "free" public wifi networks are private services that entice you to pay hourly at airports and such. They broadcast under the guise of free, but to actually get internet you need to pay.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  38.  
    identicon
    Cody Bonney, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 8:12am

    I think this was patched

    I'm pretty sure they fixed up this little bug in SP3. I'm not positive though.
    Either way, a substantial number of people are still running older releases.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 9:12am

    Re:

    I still see offices running windows 95 in 2011, I don't think we're out of the woods quite yet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    Christian Bundy, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 9:26am

    Re:

    "Perhaps you should put the blaim to where it truely belongs, on your own lack of security. What we have here in an ID Ten T error.."

    Are you kidding? First off, blame*, truly*, and "where" - not "to where". You obviously don't know what you're talking about, and the fact that you couldn't get it to work is the real ID10T error.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  41.  
    identicon
    somedude, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 9:49am

    Re: Re:

    also, *blame

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  42.  
    identicon
    Spirckle, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 1:17pm

    Re: Re:

    Do you really think a poor grasp of grammar and spelling precludes a grasp of technical issues? You don't really. To are just trying your hand at the 'Red Herring' fallacy as a disproof. Nice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  43.  
    identicon
    Spirckle, Jun 26th, 2011 @ 1:17pm

    Re: Re:

    Do you really think a poor grasp of grammar and spelling precludes a grasp of technical issues? You don't really. To are just trying your hand at the 'Red Herring' fallacy as a disproof. Nice.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    identicon
    His Shadow, Jun 27th, 2011 @ 12:13am

    Re: Ugh

    Do just shut up. The "Free Public WiFi" is an acknowledged phenomena for over 5 years, and it is a Windows bug.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  45.  
    identicon
    Ivan The Terrible, Jul 7th, 2011 @ 1:17am

    Spirckle is an id10t

    I think that a poor grasp of grammar and spelling indicates you are a moron. Perhaps a code hacking government takedown moron. But an idiot none the less. Ability to communicate in something other than machine code and WOW (World Of Warcraft for the rest of you) language is needed to survive in current society. Hey but good luck with writing the new version of Duke Nukem Spirckle... and i think you meant to spell your name Sprickle!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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  49.  
    identicon
    King Reggin, Jan 4th, 2012 @ 11:01am

    Airports should sue the writer of this article. They actually do provide free internet access, and this is discouraging people from using a valid, legal service.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  50.  
    identicon
    DensityDuck, Sep 27th, 2012 @ 5:31pm

    Still going!

    Denver International, "Free Public WiFi" spotted.

    Considering that there are still people rolling with IE6, we'll probably see SP1 XP well into the 2020s...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
    identicon
    Donna, Nov 13th, 2012 @ 5:28pm

    Are you kidding?

    > one would catch them and take it down.

    Who's job would it be to go around and (first) try to even FIND which person at a huge airport is running the hotspot. Then (second) "order" them to turn it off. And (third) spend time "forcing" them to turn it off. (Not sure how you do that one.) And (fourth) make sure they never turn it back on again. (Like the minute you leave the room.)

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
    identicon
    Tilly, Mar 23rd, 2013 @ 6:28pm

    Re: Are you kidding?

    Um, I believe they go by the name of "Federal Police" in Australia and I assume they would have the authority to take the person into custody. Airport security may also have some authority to confiscate the equipment being used. And I'd be surprised if in this day and age, there isn't software/equipment to help pin the culprits down, especially with SmartPhones and other things being used.

    I reckon that the national police in a country would run a joint operation with local police to try and shut down such activities.

    The real issue is whether the existing laws state that it's illegal. Technology has exploded so fast that laws are still lagging behind.

    And to the person saying airports should sue, for what? If you are literate enough, it's quite clear this article is referring to a specifically-named network of ad hoc type and not the structured network offered by airlines. I was in an airport a few days ago and there were signs all over the place naming the airline-provided network which included the airline's name; there was no chance I'd pick "Free Public WiFi" over [airlinename]FreeWifiHotspot or whatever long, clear name they provided.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    Tilly, Mar 23rd, 2013 @ 6:31pm

    Re: Re: Are you kidding?

    By the way, "if you are literate enough" meant universal "you" not you the person I was replying to. Lawyers are literate enough and would promptly tell the airports and airlines that they didn't have a leg to stand on, if they attempted to sue.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54.  
    icon
    BentFranklin (profile), Sep 16th, 2013 @ 9:44am

    Wow, this thread is hot!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 16th, 2013 @ 11:38pm

    Re: Re: "ad hoc"

    "You're thinking of "ad hominem"."

    You sir, are an idiot

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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