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…

Filed Under: , , , ,
Companies: microsoft

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “The History Of The (Fake) 'Free Public WiFi' You Always See At Airports”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
55 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

“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 ๐Ÿ™ ), 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.

fogbugzd (profile) says:

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.”

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Derek (profile) says:

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.

ntlgnce says:

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..

Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Re: 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.

Christian Bundy (user link) says:

Re: 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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Freak says:

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.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: 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

JM says:

There are shoulder bags, satchel bags and other kinds These, along with designer glasses, perfumes, clothes, jewelries, shoes etc, are all loved by girlsYou have to keep in mind that you are looking for purse replicas because you want to carry the latest fashion but you do not want to spend too much for it Fution of Women Handbags is main aspects you should consider There are besides plus size air max shoe http://www.airmaxcool.com jewelries to state understanding with another masses quandary, especially expressing concern to women through breast cancer knowingness jewelriesjewelrychinawholesale cheap basketball shoes http://www.nbashoesstore.com Summer time also brings out the kid in all of us – vacations at the lake, picnics in the park, fireworks, you get the idea! If summer is that time of year that brings magic, mystery and fun, consider these factors when selecting your bridal jewelry The other card has the item details plus the style number And oftentimes, it is nike air max shoes hard to find a trustworthy jewelry repair shop that can restore your broken necklace or bracelet

Ivan The Terrible says:

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!

Burberry Bags (user link) says:

Burberry Bags

Burberry Sport series of Burberry Bags are different from the previous concept, its design inspired by Burberry concept of motion, reflecting the brand innovation and rejuvenation of the spirit.Burberry On Sale As Christopher Bailey said: "the campaign is an extension of a human nature! We truly want to explore Burberry combines technical, functional, and sport-related and absorb all the elements of modern and innovative design.

Burberry Bags (user link) says:

Burberry Bags

Burberry Sport series of Burberry Bags are different from the previous concept, its design inspired by Burberry concept of motion, reflecting the brand innovation and rejuvenation of the spirit.Burberry On Sale As Christopher Bailey said: "the campaign is an extension of a human nature! We truly want to explore Burberry combines technical, functional, and sport-related and absorb all the elements of modern and innovative design.

Donna says:

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.)

Tilly says:

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.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop ยป

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...
Loading...