Safety News 5. Wireless = Public?

This actually happened to me about two years ago in Singapore.

I am talking to my friend in the USA on my cordless phone on the top (12th) floor of my Clementi Avenue HDB flat in a normal tone of voice. The front door is closed, and the windows are shuttered because we are next to the MRT line, and the noise is very distracting.

The wife from the young South Indian family two doors down the corridor on our floor comes running, taps on our door, and breathlessly tells my wife in a voice I could hear even while continuing to talk on the phone, "Auntie, I picked up the phone to phone my husband, and I can hear Uncle talking to someone!

The young lady is right; she can even repeat some key phrases from my end of the conversation.

I call my telephone service provider, and tell them our experience. They send a technician down in a couple of hours, and check the junction box at the common landing at the top of the stairs.

He pronounces all connections ok, looks at me suspiciously and asks, "Sir do you shout on your overseas calls?"

I tell him that his company is so good that I can carry on a phone conversation just at the same level as I am talking to him.

He shakes his head, enters, 'All connections checked and found correct' on his pad, gets my signature and turns to leave.

I am not letting go, and I keep asking 'Why? Why?', just as I urge my students to do in my class.

He shrugs his shoulders eloquently, looks me in the eye, and says:

"Sir, if you don't want anybody to hear your phone conversation, use a land-line, not the cell-phone, and use a wired connection, not wireless. It is rare, but it can happen that what goes out on the air can also end up elsewhere than where you intend it!"

Very wise, and very disturbing.

I have related this episode to my friends and in some of my classes, but generally get a quizzical look aas if they too want to ask: 'Sir, how loud were you talking?"

Now, read on!

ProfKrishna (28 Feb. 2008)

Wireless on a Plane: is it really such a good idea after all?
Extract from: WXPNews, Vol. 8, #8 - Feb 26, 2008 - Issue #316, By: Deb Shinder, Editor

Several airlines are moving toward offering wireless Internet service to passengers. We wrote a while back about American Airlines' plans to test wi-fi service this year via a company called Aircell that uses cellular-based technology. Continental Airlines has announced similar plans, starting next year. Southwest Airlines is one of the most recent to commit to testing in- flight broadband services, starting this summer. In this case, they'll be using a satellite-to-aircraft service provided by a company called Row 44:

One problem with these services is that connection speeds may be a lot lower than you're used to if you have broadband Internet services at home. According to Row 44's president, Greg Fialcowitz, each customer in a plane will get "at least 100 Kbps of bandwidth." That's going to seem pretty slow to folks who are used to anywhere from 1 Mbps DSL to 3-6 Mbps cable to 15 Mbps FiOS connections.

Even so, the prospect of having any type of Internet connection at all on the plane is welcome news for many travelers, especially business travelers who hate the wasted "downtime" of sitting on a plane for hours without the ability to check their email, do web research or work on projects that require access to their company networks. With in-flight connectivity, you can do all of that and more.It's been tried before - the Connexion service that started with such high hopes was a dismal failure, in part because of the cost (including added fuel costs) of the equipment to the airlines and in part because of the exorbitant prices charged the customer.

No matter how advanced your online addiction is, most folks will think twice before shelling out $30 for a few hours of Internet access.The new services promise to be a lot more cost-effective for the airlines and have more user-friendly pricing plans (although still more than we're used to paying for wi-fi access at hotels and airports, where most providers charge around $10 for a full 24 hours of access). Still, $8 for the duration of the flight is much more palatable than $30.One thing that hasn't come up much in the discussion, though, is the issue of security. For users, security is always a concern when connected to any public hotspot.

Wireless networks are inherently less secure than wired networks.

Wi- fi providers don't always take the strongest precautions in setting up the networks. Adding wireless access to planes opens up the same security concerns there.If you have your wireless adapter enabled to connect to an in-flight hotspot, it may be possible for another passenger to create an access point that purports to be the airline network and trick you into connecting to it and then intercept your transmissions. If you have ad hoc networking enabled, someone else on the plane could create a peer-to-peer connection to your computer without your knowledge.

Wireless sniffers can be used to capture packets being transmitted over the wi-fi network."Shoulder surfing" (someone looking at your keyboard and screen as you enter passwords or other sensitive information) may also present more of a concern on airplanes, since you are often seated in very close proximity to strangers. If you're connecting to your company's VPN or doing your banking online in the air, it's important to be sure nobody is watching what you type in.Now there's another concern rearing its head -- it's not just passengers' data that might be at risk with in-flight wireless networks; in some cases hackers might be able to go through the plane's entertainment network to get to its navigational and administrative systems because the networks are all linked together. In January, the FAA issued a warning regarding this problem with Boeing's new 787 "Dreamliner" jet. Boeing says the problem has been fixed - but some computer experts aren't so sure. You can read more about that here:

Boeing has undoubtedly taken steps to secure the critical networks from those that are accessible by passengers - but security vulnerabilities often aren't apparent until a talented hacker discovers them. Much as I would like to be able to turn on my laptop and get full Internet access so I could get more done during a boring plane trip, I can't help wondering whether the technology provides one more opportunity for terrorists to take over the plane or for a (potentially fatal) mishap caused by a mischievous, computer-savvy teenager.

What do you think? Is this a reason to go slowly on the adoption of wi-fi in the air, or is the threat not worth worrying about? Do the benefits of in- flight access outweigh the possible dangers? If you have the choice to fly on a plane with wi-fi or one without, which would you pick? Let us know your opinions at feedback@wxpnews.com.