Free public WiFi

May 12, 2008 – 6:07 AM

I recently found myself in an airport terminal with a laptop and time to kill. Not knowing what the WiFi options were, I let Windows XP search for available wireless networks. As you can see below, one of the networks was called “Free Public WiFi”. If this happens to you, don’t connect to a network like this.

The first two networks are each labeled “Unsecured wireless network”. Fine. But the Free Public WiFi network is described by Windows as an “Unsecured computer-to-computer network”. As the name implies, this network connects to a computer run by a total stranger somewhere nearby in the terminal.

Normally wireless networks are created, run and governed by a router. But, two WiFi-enabled computers can talk directly to each other without the need for a router-based network. Another term for this type of network is “ad-hoc”. Personally, I’ve never needed or used an ad-hoc computer-to-computer network.

How unusual are computer-to-computer networks? I live in Manhattan, surrounded by large apartment buildings. At home, my laptop picks up 28 wireless networks. Not one of them is a computer-to-computer network.

Why would someone set up a computer-to-computer network in an airport terminal? Most likely, it is good for them and bad for you. For one thing, the network name seems a bit too obvious. Who, in an airport terminal, doesn’t want free public WiFi? It’s like asking a child if they want candy.

I always configure laptops to only connect to router based networks and suggest you do so too. Windows XP has a configuration option, shown below, that controls the type of networks it talks to.

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