The VICE Channels

    The "Free Public WiFi" Mystery: A Viral Wireless Network Built by Zombies

    Written by

    Alex Pasternack

    Founding Editor

    It has lured you at your most vulnerable moments, offering the sweet sweet taste of victory over the forces that would have you pay or enter a password for instant access to the world. But if you’ve ever clicked on “Free Public WiFi” – probably clicked multiple times, like a monkey dumbly banging on the peanut machine – you know that it’s not real. You may have even wondered, in moments of digital desolation, if this is a cruel hoax, or worse?

    According to NPR, which did a brief segment on the “zombie” network, “Free Public WiFi” is made up not of wireless routers but of individual computers which have no access to the Internet. And it appears to grow every time a Windows XP encounters a dead zone.

    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?”

    Indeed, “free” is a perfect summation of what we have come to expect from the Internet: everything free, all the time. But could the too-good-to-be-true name “Free Public WiFi” have been an attempt at social commentary? Perhaps someone set it up as a mean, mean joke, or created to trick a friend into connecting to a host computer that would only deliver crude or shocking images to the client’s web browser.

    Though it has spread like a virus, creating or connecting to the ad hoc network isn’t inherently malicious. It does however potentially provide access points for hackers to enter your system.

    Will super WiFi mean a world without “Free Public WiFi,” where we’ll never need to steal Internet access again? At the rate at which this wifi virus, or wirus, is spreading, could we be living with promises of “Free Public WiFi” for the rest of our lives?

    It’s hard not to see it as the basis for a chilling entry in Hollywood’s new Internet thriller genre: imagine a false internet access point that starts on a hacker’s computer at an airport, spreads via travelers to other airports, and thanks to an occasional actual connection, transforms into its own underground internet, built of viruses, private documents, Justin Bieber b-sides. At some point, a computer scientist joins the network, inadvertently loosing on it an artificial intelligence bot that turns the accidental network into the basis for a full-on Skynet style attack on the world’s largest telephony companies, replacing the original internet with “Free Public WiFi.”