I’ve got an admission to make. Actually, you’ll have realised already if you’ve been paying attention to some of my screenshots. I don’t own an iPhone. [FX: readers faint with shock]
Actually, I own an iPod Touch. No, it wasn’t that I didn’t want an iPhone, it’s just that, being a phone journalist, I already have about 20 phones and numerous pay-as-you-go SIMs knocking around the office and just couldn’t justify a particular device that mandated an expensive longterm contract. Because, for the purposes of enjoying all the multimedia and application goodness of the iPhone, the much slimmer and cheaper iPod Touch was absolutely perfect. Apart from the few extra iPhone-only apps and slightly different behaviour in Google Maps, the two platforms are identical.
With all that in mind, what can I do about connectivity? More and more applications these days either want to ‘phone home’, to load data from a server or to communicate with others across the Internet. iPhone owners have unlimited EDGE or 3G data in most world markets, but what about us poor iPod Touch relatives?
The answer is, of course, Wi-Fi. Now it’s all very well hooking into your own home network, you’ll be doing that already. And probably into that in your office. But when out and about, with family, in shopping centres and estates across the length and breadth of the land, how can you track down Wi-Fi hotspots?
Well, there are some ad-funded web sites which claim to help you track signals down, but in my experience they only show a tiny fraction of the real number of hotspots. And the reason for this is that about 90% of open Wi-Fi networks aren’t commercial (i.e. aren’t tied to a restaurant or other facility) – they’re simply Wi-Fi routers in homes like yours but without any security applied.
Sometimes routers are left ‘open’ on purpose by their owners, who unselfishly want to give something back to handheld and mobile users, but most of the time they’re open because their owners either haven’t got round to applying security or don’t realise that they need to do anything. Leaving a Wi-Fi router without security isn’t really a danger to anyone, but you never know – a miscreant could eavesdrop on your network on coordinate something illegal using your IP address…. but most of the time it’ll just be a random Wi-Fi hitchhiker using a bit of your broadband bandwidth to do some surfing.
Does this all mean that it’s legal to connect to someone else’s Wi-Fi router? Not really, it’s technically illegal almost everywhere, yet almost everyone also does it, at some point. There’s really only ever a problem if a hitchhiker abuses the privilege by overusing the bandwidth or repeating the connections on a regular basis (e.g. in a car parked outside a house).
So, having established that it’s OK to go Wi-Fi hitchhiking (also known as ‘wardriving’) on an ad-hoc basis, how do you do it with an iPhone or iPod Touch? Now, there are third party applications that claim to help (WiFinder in the AppStore is a good example), but in my experience they don’t work as quickly and as effectively as using the Wi-Fi sniffer that’s built into the OS.
“What Wi-Fi sniffer?” you ask. Simply, go into ‘Settings > Wi-Fi’ and scan your eyes down the ‘Choose a network’ list. This is refreshed every ten seconds, so can be used while walking down a street at normal pace, for example. Obviously, any network shown with a padlock icon is security locked and is a no-go area (I’m not veering into WEP security hacking, don’t worry).
What’s left are network names with just a signal strength indicator. What you’re looking for is one that has a strength of two bars – trying to do anything meaningful on a weak signal is pretty much a waste of time. Better to spend a minute or two working out where the network is based and getting closer to it.
Now comes the crunch – actually connecting. Obviously you start with the open network that has the strongest signal. Tap on the network’s name and not on the open icon or details icon. The latter icons just lead to a page of tech mumbo jumbo, most of which will probably be blank anyway.
You’d hope that any network left ‘open’ would accept your connection and, in about half the cases you’ll encounter, this will happen and you’ll see a tick pop up on the left-hand side, beside the network name. Success. You’ll also see the blue Internet icon up in the title bar.
However, the other 50% of the time, you’ll be refused or, simply, nothing will happen. This is either because there’s extra, device-specific security in place (so called MAC filtering – nothing to do with Apple’s Mac, by the way) or because the Wi-Fi signal isn’t coming from a normal broadband-connected router at all but from some other bit of high tech used in local point to point communication.
There’s still a good chance of finding a useable signal on most UK streets though, at least in suburbia.
One piece of advice though: don’t do online banking or email over an open network like this. I know the risks are small, but the data traffic between your iPod Touch and the router/Internet isn’t being encrypted at all. So in the one-in-a-million chance that some criminal is lurking nearby and sniffing data packets, your passwords and details might be picked up as plain text, which wouldn’t be good!
Good luck! Oh – and Happy Christmas!