Tuesday, 9 October 2007

I Don't Drink...Wine

What is proper wi-fi etiquette? When you fire up your laptop after moving into a new house and your browser latches on to a stray signal, are you allowed to sink your fangs into it, like Dracula supping on the neck of some unsuspecting beauty? Or do you have to bypass that sweet-sweet broadband and wait until your cable company or phone company can get its butt in gear and get you hooked up?

I think I know the answer--it's okay to suck a little free wi-fi, just don't be greedy--but am I right?

Two incidents have me pondering this modern dilemma. The most recent occurred here, after arriving in Albion. The first thing we did after dragging our suitcases into our house was turn on our four MacBooks. We were absolutely bathed in broadband. The AirPorts identified a half-dozen signals. All save one were password-protected, however. I will call the victim, er, the open signal, "Valparaiso."

We leapt on Valparaiso like hungry ticks upon a hound dog. When we had gorged ourselves we dropped off. The pattern continued for two weeks. Occasionally our surfing would slow to a crawl and we would curse the Valparaiso family for their bandwidth-hogging ways ("What are they doing? Downloading the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy?"). Finally British Telecom finally sent us our DSL pack and we bid the Valparaisos goodbye.

Now, one could argue that if the Valparaisos were not smart enough to password protect their signal, they had no one to blame but themselves. They were just asking for it, your honor. Or perhaps they intended for others to partake of their wi-fi, as a sort of community gesture.

To be honest, I hope that my BT signal is password protected, but the installation was so complicated that I have no idea whether that's the case. A karmic digital vampire may be lapping at my jugular as I type this.

What was the other incident? Well it happened before we left the States. Because we had rented out our house as of August 1 but weren't leaving the country until later in the month, we were obliged to stay in various friends' houses while they were on vacation. We stayed in a lovely house in Kensington, Maryland. We found wi-fi there, too, courtesy of neighbors I'll call the Wallendas.

We'd been there about a day, guiltily supping on the Wallendas' signal, when the telephone rang. The house we were in had caller ID, that service that tells you who's calling. A readout on the kitchen phone said: "Wallenda." We'd been caught! The jig was up! We were certain they'd been able to trace us somehow. With trembling fingers My Lovely Wife answered the phone.

It turns out they just wanted to drop something off for the owners and wondered if we'd be home to answer the door. Our secret was safe, leaving us to pilfer again.

SITE for Sore Eyes
My colleague Joby Warrick has a story on the front page of The Washington Post today about the non-profit group SITE--it stands for Search for International Terrorist Entities. The outfit combs the Internet looking for terror group-related postings. It was able to procure Osama bin Laden's most recent video tape before any official U.S. intelligence outfits. And that's where the problems started.

SITE shared the video with the White House with the request that it not be distributed, arguing that wide disclosure could endanger the sources SITE had built up. But the White House evidently leaked it. "Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," said the firm's founder, Rita Katz.

A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence told The Post that the leak shouldn't worry anyone: "We have individuals in the right places dealing with all these issues, across all 16 intelligence agencies."

In other words, since official channels are monitoring al Qaeda communications compromising an unofficial channel isn't anything to get upset about. Which strikes me as odd, since the Iraq war is the most outsourced conflict in U.S. history. The administration is depending on everything from private caterers to armed bodyguards to support the war effort, and here they've apparently pulled the rug out from someone who was doing some good.


kathleen said...

It took two weeks for wifi to be installed in my flat. Rather than wait in internet-less misery, I "borrowed" wifi from my neighbors. Honestly, if they are concerned, they should password-protect their connection. If it's free and open (especially in a city where people live in close quarters), you need to assume someone else is using it as well.

kathleen said...

oops, I meant to add a link to this interesting (albeit a little old) article from Slate: http://slate.com/id/2109941/