‘Whisher’, Opening Up the Internet?

On: September 22, 2008
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About Stephan Barmentloo
My name is Stephan Barmentloo. I hold bachelor degree in Business Information Systems and a BA degree in Media and Culture. I'm a student of the New Media MA at the University of Amsterdam.

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With the tagline ‘Building the world’s largest WiFi network’ the goal of Whisher doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Whisher tries to create a global and dense WiFi network with the help of users who are willing to share their internet connection with the rest of the world. The service was announced in early 2007, and as of today the application has been downloaded over 230.000 times. The most important feature of Whisher is the ability to share your own internet connection with other members and get free access to their internet connections in return. In the next paragraph I’ll try to explain why this service is worth discussing and what makes it stand apart from a similar free service like FON.

Whisher hot spots in city centre of Amsterdam

Whisher hot spots in city centre of Amsterdam

Whisher and similar services
Several similar services have popped up in the last couple of years, most of those service require a monthly subscription fee in order to access the WiFi network and thus have a commercial nature. This entirely commercial nature makes services like FON and Whisher stand apart, because they also offer free access to their networks. FON started their service in late 2005, over a year before Whisher was introduced. The differences between the two, and as a result the useful addition of the latter, are based on the infrastructure that lie beneath both services. To join the FON community you’ll need to make changes to your wireless router or modem either by flashing them with a customized firmware that is based on the OpenWRT software, or by replacing it with official FON hardware which you’ll need to buy first. This creates a relative high barrier of entry, because the first option requires a technical understanding of the hardware and the second option requires a financial investment. Whisher is based on another approach that doesn’t require any changes being made to your own hardware infrastructure, instead it works by registering an account and installing software that enables you to share your WiFi credentials, which then will be encrypted by the application and shared with other people through a central server. Compared to FON this approach results in a relative low barrier of entry, because it is very easy to install software with the help of a wizard and filling out a form with the details to your location and the WiFi credentials of your router or modem.

The concept of public spheres
Now that I’ve described the main goal of Whisher and the way it operates, I want to analyze it from the perspective of new media studies. The most obvious concept that directly relates to Whisher is the concept of the public sphere by Jürgen Habermas. This concept can be summarized as the ability to make up your own thoughts and ideas and subsequently the ability to exchange these thoughts and ideas with everyone in public. This concept is regarded by many as an important pillar of a truly democratic society in which everybody should have the possibility to participate and be heard. The internet can be seen as one of the important platforms that facilitate these thoughts about society. But in order to make use of this platform and you’ll need to have access first, and as of today access to the internet isn’t a common good yet. Whisher delivers a contribution to this concept because it opens up the internet for free to every member of the community, and you’re no longer bound to a specific location like your home or work. You don’t even need to have an internet connection of your own, let alone share it with others, to be able to make use of the many free access points that are provided by other users of the Whisher community. Thus it can be argued that Whisher is a truly liberating service that aids the notion of the internet as a public sphere. However, apart from the requirement of a device that enables setting up WiFi connections in the first place, I’m referring to the possession of a personal computer, notebook or mobile phone, there are several other problems directly related to the Whisher service as well.

The issue of network coverage
Obviously for the service to work it heavily relies on its user base that is willing to share their internet connection. Creating a global and dense WiFi network can only be done if people are aware of the project and are willing to participate in it. This means that it is necessary to generate as much publicity as possible, and because advertising through the usual media like radio and television is a very costly endeavor, the success of the project heavily relies on free publicity like word of mouth advertising. And even if many people are reached and willing to participate in the Whisher community, it will be very difficult to cover all rural areas with access points, let alone developing countries.

The issue of abuse
When you’re thinking about services like Whisher and FON offer, one of the questions that instantaneously pops up is that of security. Why do people resort to WPA encryption to block access to a WiFi router or modem for the general public in the first place? For most people this will probably have to do with the inability to control the usage and thus possible abuse of the internet connection. We live in a time that unsecure internet connections are easily abused for law undermining practices like distributed denial of service attacks, exchanging child pornography, accessing of secret business or governmental information, etcetera. Even ordinary practices that stay well within the boundaries of the law can be regarded as unwanted, for example those that will take up the entire available bandwith. All in all these examples provide good reasons to secure your internet connection from strangers, because in the end you will be held responsible by your internet service provider and/or justice department for the data that is being transmitted through your internet connection.

Why should you open up your secured internet connection to the general public with the help of applications like Whisher? Of course it is possible to use the Whisher application without sharing your internet connection with the rest of the world. You can also share it with so called buddies such as family relatives or close friends. You can also decide to not share your connection at all. One thing is certain, and that is that applications like Whisher cannot guarantee that abuse is not going to take place. Neither will it be easy to identify a person that has abused your internet connection in retrospect. For instance the personal details of a Whisher account can be totally made up and thus invalid.

Another security related issue is the encryption of the SSID’s and accommodating keys of the access points that are stored on a central server by the Whisher application. It is not entirely unthinkable that someone finds a way around this encryption. Imagine that this happens, then it would be possible to abuse an internet connection even without knowing that someone can access it by bypassing the Whisher application. It is unclear what kind of encryption is used by the Whisher application, thus it is difficult to make a hard judgment about this possible breach of security, but one thing is certain and that is the possible risk that you expose yourself to when signing up and sharing your internet connection.

There is also a risk involved for people that use the free access points made available through Whisher. For instance a malicious administrator of such an access point might install software on the router that logs all network traffic. This means that if someone visits a website where they will have to enter personal details such as usernames, passwords or even credit card details, that these details might be intercepted if the data packets are analysed by the administrator. It can be desatreus for the user that trusts the administrator of such an access point. Whisher can’t provide any guarantees that these malicious practices won’t take place.

Concluding
The concept of Whisher is currently one of the most clever ways in trying to create a wide and dense WiFi network that can be used by anyone that belongs to the community. You can even earn so called WiFi Out credits for sharing your internet connection with others, which subsequently can be used to access certain commercial access points that are linked to the Whisher network. To make Whisher a success and live up to its goal it is necessary that many more will join the network. But for some people the issues around the possibility of abuse might scare them away from participating in the community. Also as time goes by and new technologies are constantly being introduced, it is hard to say if Whisher will remain a useful service. For example mobile phone providers and internet service providers are constantly looking for new ways to provide wireless internet connections to its customers by extending the bandwidth and coverage of their networks. Untill the above issues concerning possible abuse aren’t resolved, I wouldn’t recommend using Whisher or similar services.

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