Over the last week, I’ve been looking at issues around free public Wi-Fi. Despite the growth of mobile broadband, 76% of those who have it also use public Wi-Fi networks. There are problems around privacy and security and really understanding what’s happening when you use public Wi-Fi, and I wanted to explore them during my work experience week.

Uncovering hidden data behind Wi-Fi

George and Ian did a lap around Somerset House to collect information about the Wi-Fi networks in the area. (Image: Screenshot/Google)

It’s hard to discuss Wi-Fi networks because we can’t see them. I started off my week here by setting up a Raspberry Pi so I could turn it into a Wi-Fi Recorder, a tool that IF made during their project with Google Open Research. That involved getting an understanding of how everything was put together and how code is uploaded to it. I then went for a walk around Somerset House to collect some information about the Wi-Fi networks around there.

I then took a look at all of the data that was collected. What I found really surprised me. I was mostly surprised by the sheer amount of networks that were not encrypted. 18% of the detected networks did not have a password. Most of the networks were from businesses like hotels and restaurants or from ISPs such as The Cloud, O2 and BT. Six of the networks detected were hotspots from people’s phones. Some were from a university nearby.

It’s interesting to see how GPS sometimes breaks when you’re using it in built up areas. There was a hotspot that was detected as being in the River Thames.

Helping people understand invisible things

Sketching is a big part of our work and an important process that we introduce George to. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF)

With an understanding of how the hardware works, I set off to design my own interface on the Wi-Fi Recorder. Right now, it simply shows a list of what networks are around you and which ones are open. I wanted to explore what designs would make something like the Wi-Fi recorder more accessible to everyday public Wi-Fi users.

I like the idea of having a radar interface, rather than something traditional like a list. It would show an icon in the middle representing you, and the Wi-Fi networks around you would surround the icon. I understand the Wi-Fi recorder knows the signal strength of the network, so you could put dots representing stronger networks closer to the icon representing you.

Rather than just showing the Wi-Fi network name, you could write code that tries to guess what company runs the network. It wouldn’t be 100% accurate, but you could change the colour of the dots for the different ISPs. It’s important that people know who is operating a network because different companies have different rules for their Wi-Fi networks.

From school to the studio

To round off the week, George delivered a show and tell of what he worked on. (Photo: Francesca Guidali/IF)

My experience here at IF has been absolutely wonderful. It’s run by some fantastic people who are very passionate about what they do. I’ve been introduced to lots of new things: from practical skills like using Raspberry Pi and making websites, to the culture of the studio like sharing learning through show and tells.

If you are currently searching for a placement for work experience and are wondering if you should apply for one at IF, I say “Go for it!”, you could learn a thing or two!