Canary Wireless

Canary Wireless

I just received the Digital Hotspotter. It's a tiny little unit that takes 2 AAA batteries and detects WiFi networks.

It's really easy to use, just press the button and it scans for available networks. If there are any it shows the SSID (i.e network name), the channel it's using and whether encryption is being used.

If the network isn't broadcasting the SSID (they called it "cloaked") which really means it's not sending out the name in beacon packets, then it still shows the network, channel and whether WEP is in use or not.

As the device is so small, it's pretty convenient to carry about if you're looking for a hotspot (or want to jump on to someone's wireless network).

Of course using to "steal" someone's bandwidth may not be such a good idea as it may well be illegal (in fact even snooping out a WiFi network can be illegal in some countries). In the UK for example intercepting data that you're not meant to is breaking the law it's covered by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act, of course the likelyhood of you being prosecuted for it are extremely unlikely (if you can be caught in the first place) but that would including decoding the WiFi beacon packets that every WiFi network uses. Once you join a WiFi network (that you're not meant to) you're also breaking the law as you're using computing resource (even just in the Access Point which is having to process the packets your sending) which you're not entitled to be using which is covered by the Computer Misuse Act. Again unless you're doing something seriously wrong, it's unlikely that you'd be prosecuted.

This does bring up the whole security issue, recent reports still show that most WiFi networks are unsecured or on default settings. This is not only dangerous in terms of people having unrestricted access to your network, but also if they are doing something illegal (maybe hacking someone else or down or uploading illegal material such as child pornography) then the Police will come knocking at your door. You may think you're being nice by having an open network, but remember you're responsible for its use.

It's not hard to secure a network, depending on traffic levels WEP can be enough (you need to snoop a reasonable ammount of data to break the WEP codes), someone determined to get in will but it will deter the average user. Of course upgrading to WPA which uses AES (advanced encryption standard) makes it even more difficult. Then if you run things like SSH (secure shell), IPSEC (IP Security) or a secure VPN (virtual private network) on top of the WiFi network it's going to be very difficult ot snoop the traffic. It's even a reasonable policy to run an open WiFi network if the only thing you can do with it is run a secure protocol above it.

PlayStation Portable update

In the vein of being geeky at the moment, I decided to try and connect my PSP to the WiFi network and see what happens.

The WiFi network is secured using WEP to reduce the chance of people randomly connecting to it (not that I wouldn't mind people using spare bandwidth, just there are major issues with liability etc.).

So on the PSP I create a network connection, unfortunately the key entry system in in Japanese but that was only for the connection name (I think you can change it), but since there was a default, not a problem. The select the SSID - luckily this has an English keyboard and it wasn't too difficult, WEP was the same, everything else was left on automatic (such as IP address, netmask, etc). It's odd the PSP wouldn't scan for a network.

There's then a test connection, which happily connected.

It was then possible to upgrade the unit (there's an upgrade option), which worked flawlessly. It just pulled a new image from Sony and stored it on the (supplied 32MB) memory stick. The firmware is then copied from the memory stick to the internal Flash memory. You need to make sure you have sufficient battery power and that unit should be plugged into the mains and then it all runs smoothly.

I haven't yet noticed much of a difference in actual operation, apart from the OS reporting v1.5 instead of 1.0.

It looks as though there is a lot more functionality in the unit than Sony have made publically available yet, there are reports of people having got web browsers, IRC clients and other Internet applications running on the units.

I do believe Sony are on to a winner here and that the PSP really has the possibility of becoming a sophisticated portable media hub.

The Dangers of Broadband

A couple of days ago I decided to revitalise an old laptop that had been sitting dormant for a while. It had an old copy of XP that (long story) had a dubious Product Key, so wouldn't upgrade to newer versions. Since I had a spare (real) copy lying around I booted from this and did a recovery - that installed the new Product Key while hopefully maintaining all the programs etc that had been installed. That actually went very well, slow, but well.

Next step run Windows Update and get the system into a reasonable state, again slow (just due to the system - there's a fast broadband connection) but all went well. Then install Microsoft's new Anti spyware system and Grisoft's AVG (free version while testing). They immediately showed problems, a virus and lots of spyware. Several attempts at scanning and deleting just didn't seem to work. Unplugging the LAN connection did improve things but as soon as the Ethernet was reconnected up pops the spyware. Something was badly wrong. Leave it until morning ...

Next decision was to completely reinstall XP (actually SP1), plug the system in and leave XP installing. After the initial load of CD, XP reported 39 minutes remaining - which took more like 2 hours, but at least it could just get on with it. Then do the updates etc. and install the Anti spyware software. Somehow the system had become infected again. I'd guess that either the original spyware reports itself to a site which then probes you, or the system was just randomly attacked (probably the former). It seems that when XP is installing it leaves NetBIOS turned on which since it's unpatched at that point leaves the system open to attack.

This had taken most of the morning and dragged into the early afternoon. But since I couldn't get rid of the spyware - another reinstall. This time I unplugged the system from the LAN and started again. I also made sure I had SP2 and the anti spyware/virus software on CD. Eventually XP installed and then installed the software (which noticed NetBIOS was turned on and turned it off) and did the local SP2 upgrade. It was now evening but it seemed to work. SP2 comes with a pretty lame firewall, but at least it's a firewall so I made sure that was running, then plugged the system into the LAN. No spyware/virii appeared and I managed to get the system updated. It's been like that ever since.

I also happen to run a Samba server (which is an open source file/print sharing system for UNIX that emulates a Microsoft Domain controller) so I can keep important files centrally. I decided I'd check the logs, and lo and behold there have been consistant attempts to connect to it. As a precaution I've always only allowed machines on the local network to connect, but I'm sure if it had been left open it would have been severely comprimised by now.

I'm now going to start filtering at the router connection to my broadband provider. It may make things slightly more restrictive, but stopping external probes and even attacks is more important. It shows that there are nasty things at work on the Internet.

The moral of the story is run a firewall if possible at border of you and your broadband provider, if not firewall every PC that connects to the Internet.


More on unbundling

I just returned from a brief holiday in France. I stayed near a tiny village called Ampus which is in Provence. The house I was in was a 15th century old farmhouse, which was next to 3 other houses. Ampus itself (the "main" village) is about 6 minutes away and Tourtour about 10 minutes the other way. The total population of the two communes is about 1,000 people.

In June (or thereabouts) this year they're getting broadband. Whether it's from the encumbant France Telecom I didn't ascertain - but it's coming.

Local loop unbundling has taken off big time in France, and triple plays are the norm. Advertisments on TV were showing a basic offering of around 9.99 Euros per month for 10Mb/s. I think you had to take telephony with that package (which is actually delivered as VoIP) but the end user doesn't care. How the actual calls are delivered to them is irrelevent as long as the call quality is good, and they offer competetive telephony rates anyway.

The UK has got a fair way to go before hitting European levels of unbundling and unfortunately with BT's current pricing policy and Ofcom's late play of being serious about LLU it's going to be hard to achieve sensible pricing that can match EU offerings, in fact the UK may never catch up.