Tuesday, 2 March 2010

US Airways Free WiFi? No, not really.

I'm a pretty heads-up kind of guy.

Let me rephrase that. I'm pretty much a heads-up kind of guy. (I never claimed to be pretty!) Every computer I own or control has virus protection, firewalling (usually customised), intruder detection, and a whole bunch of other stuff I'm not going to discuss. So it takes a lot to put one past me.

Someone did.

This January, after the Consumer Electronics Show 2010 in Vegas, I was coming back via LAX. (That's Los Angeles International Airport, to anyone who still flies by boat.) I'm in the bloody-awful Air New Zealand lounge, which Virgin Atlantic has the misfortune to share. So I'm looking around for WiFi, and I spot "US Airways Free WiFi" on the list. Sounds good to me. LAX is a US Airways hub, and I've just flown from Vegas on a US Airways flight, so I'm entitled, right? I connect. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work, so I disconnect, and try one or two others. Eventually, I find one that does seem to work, check my email, and shut down the laptop.

Wind forward a month or so.

I'm at home, on the same laptop, when the router goes down. I power-cycle the router, and sit on the "Wireless Network Connections"¹ dialog, waiting for the network to come up again. And I see: "US Airways Free WiFi". Not in leafy Cambridgeshire, surely?

So, I've been "had". The apparent network I connected to at LAX was in fact an ad-hoc (computer-to-computer) network, not an access point. In my defence, if I'd not been exhausted from four days of exhibiting at the biggest trade show on Earth (and the inevitable evening entertainments), the subsequent teardown, and travel, I'd have spotted the "ad-hoc" symbol in the networks list, and avoided it like a leper. But that's exactly how hackers do these things. Travellers are weary mortals, and easy prey.

Ever since that airport incident, my own laptop had been broadcasting "US Airways Free WiFi" to everyone else, encouraging them to connect with me, and start broadcasting it for themselves. It's like sneezing in a crowded room.

What was lost? Nothing, as it happens. If I'd had any shared folders advertised, the peer to which I'd connected could have raided them, but for good and sound reasons I didn't have network shares enabled.

The fix is very simple, and I recommend it to anyone else who travels with their laptop. It assumes you're using Windows' own WiFi configuration tools: if you're using a vendor-supplied tool instead, you'll have to work it out for yourself.

The vast majority of computer users have never needed to use an ad-hoc network, so the sensible thing to do, since it's a vector for attack, is to disable ad-hoc networking completely until uncured ham flaps past the window, and you decide you do need to use it. Ad-hoc networking, that is; not the ham. Ahem.

Here's how you do it on Windows XP¹. I don't use Vista (in fact, I upgrade² all Vista machines under my control to XP), and haven't yet needed to buy a Windows 7 machine, so if you're using any other Windows, you'll have to adapt these instructions to your own operating system.
  1. From the Start menu, select Control Panel, and choose "Network Connections" from the list.
  2. Right-click on "Wireless Network Connection", and select "View Available Wireless Networks".
  3. In the left panel in the pop-up window that follows, click on "Change advanced settings". You'll get a list of all sorts of stuff you don't care about.
  4. Select the "Wireless Networks" tab at the top of the window.
  5. Near the bottom of the page that's now show, there's an "Advanced" button. Click it.
  6. There's a list of three options shown. Select "Access point (intrastructure) networks only". If the "Automatically connect to non-preferred networks" box is checked, uncheck that one too. Then OK your way out of the dialog, and close everything else.
You're now protected, at last. With that one, simple change, you've prevented hackers using your machine to propagate this meme, and you've prevented anyone from viewing your shared folders. Now, why couldn't Microsoft have done that by default?

¹ Yes, Windows. I know, I'm a Linux guy by preference, but I do use Windows. (And then spend most of my time in Linux sessions in VirtualBox, or over SSH-hardened connections to Linux boxes, of course.)

² When I install another OS version, and it goes faster, uses less resources, is more compatible with past programs, works with more hardware, has less bugs and dies less often, that's an upgrade, right?

Monday, 1 March 2010

Copy of a complaint to the BBC about proposed closure of 6Music

I gather from a variety of news sources that plans are under consideration at the BBC to close 6music. I believe that this would be a profoundly retrograde step.

6music is the only national radio station to address its specific audience: those who wish to listen to an eclectic range of music from the 1960s to the present day. Even Planet Rock, the nearest comparison, has a more limited range of music styles and dates.

6music's quality of production is second to none, and its presenter line-up is stellar.

The _only_ reason why 6music has low figures is that it is only available on DAB.

Let's draw a comparison.

If BBC Radio 3 was a digital-only station, its listening figures would be dire. Even though R3 is on all formats, and 6Music only on digital, R3's listening hours are only three times those of 6Music.

The unavoidable conclusion is that if 6Music were on analogue as well, its figures would leave R3 in its dust.

And yet 6Music is apparently under threat, and R3 carries on regardless.

6Music has an excellent, high-value audience demographic, comprising individuals with broad musical tastes that are unsatisfied by any other radio station. From a personal perspective, R1 is too oriented to playlisted low-grade pop, frequently repeated, R2 is too staid and uninteresting, and the BBC offers me no other music programming (except for 6Music) that I'm interested to hear. I do listen to Radio 4. If 6Music were on FM analogue, I'd be listening to that in the car rather than R4, much of the time.

6Music is a superb asset that the BBC should nurture and exploit, not discard as it if were an inconvenience.If its closure is still under discussion, please do the sensible thing, and find a better, easier target. Even after the firestorm over GCap's attempted closure of Planet Rock, I do not believe you have the slightest idea of just how big a hole you would be digging for yourselves. Stop before you see kangaroos; that's my advice.

Jon Green