Saturday, 24 December 2016

WiFi Router Could Actually Say Your Name


What you choose to call your wireless network can say a lot about you. If you’re the attendee of an “alt-right” event at Texas A&M University who decided to promote genocide in the form of a network ID, it can say you are violently racist. While it is perhaps not surprising to see the USA’s new far-right white supremacist movement engaging with the language of Nazism, there seems something particularly insidious in using such hateful language in something as benign as a Wi-Fi connection.

What turns a simple technical feature into a personalised billboard? Amber Burton, a senior lecturer in digital media and communications currently researching digital identities, likens the naming of our networks to a “digital T-shirt”.

“Remember as teens, your mates wearing those T-shirts that were designed to provoke? Always validated with a ‘it’s just a joke’, or ‘just my freedom of speech’? It’s making public something they know will provoke a reaction.”

While some router names are picked to deliberately offend, others cover everything from the deliberately arcane through to crowd-pleasing puns. Why do we pick particular names and what do these names tell us about ourselves? Burton argues that the names we then choose for ourselves serve to telegraph our identities on our own terms. “It’s all woven into the fabric of how we choose to present and represent ourselves.”

If we choose a particularly humorous name or an interesting play on language, we are broadcasting something about who we are.

But there’s a twist when it comes to network names: not only are we communicating something about ourselves via a named router, we are insisting others comply with it.

“Unusual names further extend the owner’s agenda and insists that the receiver must deal with it, by virtue of having to click on or accept a device with that handle,” Burton argues. The racist network ID in Texas isn’t just an attempt to shock, then: they’s also an attempt to normalise the attitudes through implied compliance and active collaboration.

In a bid to shed light on the tapestry of messages that invisibly permeate our world, digital marketer Frederico Meals set up The Berlin Wi-Fi Project: a map of Berlin overlayed with different network names. The idea came to him while trying to source a Wi-Fi connection from his phone on the train.

“I watched the names change as the train sped through the city; some funny, some personal, some mysterious. I liked the idea of the streets being lined with a series of secret messages addressed to the universe.”

Meals’s own Wi-Fi is named EasyBox-876524. What that says about him, he suggests, is “I’m too lazy to change the name”. But his project has revealed a world of router-based innovation and wordplay. “My favourites,” Meals admits, “are the ones that broadcast something to the neighbours: ‘Please play the violin at a lower volume’, ‘It’s too loud by the convenient store” and ‘Your children are shit’.”

Meals’s investigations have also revealed some strange, wordless interactions.

“In one area ’Dennis is an asshole’ is countered by ‘Dennis is no asshole’; while in my own neighbourhood “NutellaMann” and “NutellaFrau” co-exist within metres from each other. I want to believe there’s a platonic, wireless flirting going on there.”

Meals and his readers work to decode the meanings of the names. A network named “Prinzessin Anabell” was discovered to be a character from an animated Czechoslovakia children’s show. A network named “Reichts Nach Genf” turned out to be a reference to a controversial graphic novel; the “genff” in the name denoting the smell of dimensional hiatus within the book’s universe.

While router names can be used to transmit something funny or personal, in the hands of hackers, things get a little dicey.

Aaron Singer, a Service Delivery Manager at Pulsar Online, an internet security firm, advises on thinking twice before clicking on what appears to be a seemingly open access Wi-Fi.

“Hackers might put up a bogus Wi-Fi hotspot, named ‘BT Openreach’ for example. You then click on it and load up your internet banking or social media, all the while using a hacker’s router which is stealing your data.

“Hackers could even impersonate your personal router. These things happen.”

An inquiry into some of the more unusual Wi-Fi names within my own area indeed returned some instances of trickery (“TV License Detection Unit”) alongside “Tell My Wi-Fi I Love Her” and “I Believe I Can Wi-Fi”.

There’s one other reason for the experimentation in network names: Though there is a very modern tradition of collating funny and passive aggressive Wi-Fi network names, a network name is ultimately transient. A slogan which we once found funny we soon find tedious or trite. We continually reevaluate the ways in which we want to present ourselves to the wider world. Even the racist sitting in a lecture hall in a Texas university might, one day, realise the error of their ways. And when they do, change is just a click away.



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