The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Hacking the Network

A United Nations report said that disconnecting people from the internet is a human rights violation and against international law. It could be argued whether access to the internet is actually a human right or an enabler of rights, but, as a digital nomad, my very livelihood depends on it. I would prefer it enshrined in every constitution around the world that my internet access is a human right. It is a right I have to constantly fight for, as sometimes I find myself disconnected.

My obsession with breaking into wireless networks started India. I was working in the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, right in the beating heart of the Silicon Valley of India. Bangalore’s resemblance to California is remarkably absent. Bangalore is not in a valley, it is high up on the Deccan plateau. The city is a sprawling mass of concrete with all the appliances of an Indian city: cows, auto-rickshaws, sari-clad women, and more cows. None of which can be frequently encountered in US cities, especially not cows. The population of the city exploded over the stretch of a few years, and that had dire consequences for the aspiring research scientists: blackouts were frequent. The blackouts were the reason I embarked on a mildly successful career as a hacker.

I was lodged in a student hall, which was right on the other side of the campus than my lab. Internet access, of course, was only possible from the lab. After some adventures, I managed to obtain a bicycle. This vehicle was the lifeline between me and the internet. I had to run calculations day and night, but I could tie my laptop to the bicycle, so I could commute to the lab whenever I needed internet access.

The inexperienced and naive research intern I was, I associated importance with submitting manuscripts to conferences. Conferences, unlike journals, have deadlines, which the better ones tend to keep. This lead to problems, as I discovered India had a wide range of intoxicating beverages available at the fraction of the price they were sold in Singapore. Scientific experiment followed scientific experiment as I was trying to identify the best booze, as measured by a wide range of indicators. Many times I got so involved with this unofficial research engagement that I lagged behind in what I was supposed to do. A submission deadline was approaching for a conference I perceived as the most outstanding of them all. I thought I would get the rest of paper done over the weekend, and so I proceeded with my unofficial scientific enquiries.


A bush suitable to accommodate one budding hacker.

This turned out to be a blatant mistake, because that weekend saw the biggest blackout of my stay. My lab had its own generators that lasted for a while, but not for very long. Electricity was delightfully buzzing in the power sockets of my room in the student hall, but no electricity in the lab meant no internet access. My skills of navigating any kind of vehicle had always been reprehensible, and I often got into accidents on my bicycle, so the lab blackout did not leave entirely unprepared. I already piled up some literature on hacking into wireless networks, hoping to find a wifi source closer to my residence, which would shorten my commute and potentially save me from dying in a gory accident. Given the circumstances, I was forced to get my hands dirty with hacking. I started hunting around the campus for wireless signals in the neighbourhood.

I was lucky. After about an hour of wandering, I found a bush that had a strong signal with a weak encryption. I had no idea what I was exactly doing. I was typing in commands to a terminal from a tutorial, and things fell into place. The gist of it is this: you capture packets that go between a laptop and a router. The packets are encrypted, and that is just fine, you do not want to eavesdrop on anybody, that would be immoral. It is the header of certain packets that you need, because using those, you can pretend to the router that you are also a connected client. Then you start pumping junk into the traffic, and the router says, hey, this is junk, but I give you a hint how to make things better. Once you collect enough hints, you try cracking the password. Testing a few million options usually suffices. I cracked the password in about thirty minutes. It was incredible. Given enough wifi networks, one may crack five to six passwords while watching a Hindi movie, so I reckoned.

Bollywood poster

The measure of success is the number of cracked passwords per Hindi movie.

Having gained internet access, I set to finish my manuscript. I was typing furiously in the bush. It was getting dark and insects of considerable size were cheerfully exercising their flying skills above me. Bats were quick to figure that these insects were of the delicious variety. The happy chase of life and death unfolded above my head as I was finishing the paper. When I deemed my manuscript perfect, I submitted it over the conference website, only to have it rejected by belligerent reviewers four months later. I learned a few things: 1) Even conference reviews take forever to arrive; 2) Peer-review being anonymous, reviewers allow themselves a language that would put them on a no-fly list if they tried to pull off the same thing at airport security; 3) Sitting in a bush for hours on is not comfortable and has an impact on my ability to walk the following day.

The ability to gain network access by exploiting a weak encryption is powerful and comes with responsibilities. After this first successful attempt, I learned to use a set of tools that would allow me a very reasonable stealth mode with minimal traffic, so as not to disturb the record of the person whose network I was hogging. This included all sorts of things from encrypted searches to tunnelling network traffic through a secure channel. Later I became paranoid and I used stealth mode all the time, even when I was authorized to access the net. I did not want the wicked internet service provider know that I was searching for “weasels with water guns”, it was not their business.

When I lived in Mexico, we were using the wireless of the sister of one my flatmates, but she stayed two storeys lower, so the signal kept dropping. A dozen other neighborhood networks were criss-crossing my body, petabytes of data were beamed through me, which made want to tap on one of them, preferably on the strongest signal. I stayed there for three months and I did not manage to hack into any of them. They must have had passwords a hundred characters long.

Just before I embarked on a long journey to Indochina, I expected that internet access would be hard to come by and I prepared myself by getting an external wireless adapter with a ten-inch aerial. I was looking for it all over Singapore, and finally I found a tiny shop that had it. “Ah, you want to break into networks?”, the guy asked. “Me? I would not know how. Make sure the thing is compatible with Linux and can be put into monitoring mode.” It was a good investment, networks were indeed hard to come by in Cambodia and Laos, and this adapter could pick up a signal in the middle of a rice field. I am not saying I could break into a network in the middle of a rice field, but if I had had an infinite amount time, I would have succeeded.

A rice field

This rice field had no wifi signals.

The importance of the skill faded quickly, as prepaid data plans became far more prevalent. Now I always get a local SIM card and use my phone as a modem. With one exception.

I was flying from Europe to the Caribbean through JFK with all the pain that comes with entering US airspace. I had a total of eight hours to transfer, and I was anxious to find out whether I had a couch to sleep on in Trinidad. From touch down to customs it was a mere three hours, probably the fastest ever at JFK. I went to the terminal of my connecting flight and looked for a wireless signal. There was no complimentary wifi network, of course, we were at the heart of corporate capitalism. I tried the paid network, but it did not accept my credit card; well done, Uncle Sam. I had about a dozen SIM cards with me, all from different countries, but none of them had data roaming in the States. I walked up to an AT&T counter to buy a SIM card. That would be $65 plus VAT only, said the bloke. I was not going to pay $65 plus VAT for accessing the network for two minutes. So I started looking for a weakly encrypted network, and I found one! It came from one of the airline lounges. I had two options: 1) Walk up to the lounge and buy a fully refundable business class ticket to anywhere from JFK. That would have allowed me access to the lounge, and, more importantly, to the network. Then, just before my flight, cancel it and ask for the refund. 2) Hack.

Given that I had no accounts in USD, the exchange rate would have made me lose a considerable amount if choosing option 1). I chose 2). I sat close to the lounge and got to my business. Numbers were running on a black screen, packets were being collected, and then injected. I felt exposed, I missed my bush in India with the bats above me. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps it was not a great idea to hack into a network at an airport where every camera was aimed at me, every mechanical and electromagnetic signal I emitted was recorded and sent straight to the Pentagon, and that perhaps CIA agents were already briefing the SWAT team to squash me and send me to Guantanamo. On a second thought, I realized that Guantanamo was in the Caribbean, so I would reach my destination either way, and I continued.

A screenshot of airmon-ng

If this is what you see, there are no networks to hack at all, which probably means you are in Cuba.

It took an hour, the signal was not very strong, but I cracked the password. The ratio of cracked passwords per Hindi movie was certainly less advantageous than in India. The password was only six digits. The hexadecimal numbers of the password were grinning at me from the screen. The router authenticated, the password was correct. There was one glitch: the router refused to give me an IP address. No IP address, no joy. I put the airline on my black list, and I concluded that there were massive and widespread transgressions of human rights at JFK.

One Comment

  1. […] there was electricity in the plugs, I hooked up with some kind of a wireless network after some hacking, and I was moved in as far as I was concerned. There was one thing I failed to take into account. […]