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  • Wi-Fi DefianceAutonomy in the Information Age
  • Gary Kafer (bio)

This network is not secured. Are you sure you want to connect?

There is a certain perceived democratizing effect that accompanies public Wi-Fi: situated in communal spaces, free to use, and accessible to all with a mobile device or laptop. Whereas password verification is required to access private networks, public Wi-Fi is unrestricted and shared. However, as we know, the civic space engendered by public Wi-Fi is not without its liabilities. One is likely to encounter the above warning when attempting to connect to a Wi-Fi router in an airport, café, or museum. In public networks, because one's device is made available to every other device within range of the wireless access point, there is a greater degree of risk that one's signal may be intercepted for tracking and monitoring purposes. While private networks are presented with similar challenges when accessing resources from the public domain of the internet, [End Page 199] open networks in particular, due to their lack of encryption and authentication barriers, are far more vulnerable to malicious attacks.

Even so, public Wi-Fi can be incredibly beneficial for those who want to remain unidentifiable online because local internet service providers cannot attribute IP addresses assigned to devices in open networks to privately owned accounts. Yet to take advantage of this potential of open networks, one must use software that can encrypt data and guarantee secure internet access free from unlicensed tracking. Importantly, such means for attaining anonymity articulate a mode of resistance against the tactics of network surveillance and traffic analysis initiated by rogue identity thieves, internet service providers, and federal agencies. Beginning in 2014, artist Trevor Paglen and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum began installing the artwork Autonomy Cube in galleries and museums around the world in an effort to make such anonymizing efforts possible within the public network of the host institution (fig. 1). Consisting of an acrylic glass cube measuring 1.25 feet on each side, the sculpture contains internet routers composed of two open-source Novena motherboards (fig. 2). With this hardware, Autonomy Cube draws from the institution's internet bandwidth to initiate a public Wi-Fi hotspot in the middle of the exhibition space with which visitors are invited to synchronize their mobile devices.

What is unique about this wireless access point is that it drives all connected traffic over the Tor network. A volunteer-run open-source software, Tor anonymizes data by sending information across a web of various servers, or nodes, that relay information to one another, thus preventing tracking programs from determining the source and endpoint of an encrypted message. So, for example, if one requests an internet resource while on the Tor network, the request will come not from an identifying IP address but from the last server, or exit node, that handled that information. On these grounds, all persons who use Tor enter into a privacy-oriented alternative internet infrastructure, thus evading the incriminating pitfalls of ISP registration, metadata logs, and location-based services. Moreover, Tor is open-source software that connects people across telecommunication pathways to merge the bandwidth capacities of local relay stations into a more powerful global network. Put simply, the more people [End Page 200]

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Fig 1.

Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube. Installation view at Witte de With, Rotterdam, September 2015–January 2016. Courtesy of the artist, Metro Pictures New York, Altman Siegel San Francisco

who use Tor, the more bandwidth is added to the network, and the safer it becomes for all users. For these reasons Tor enables what Lonneke van der Velden calls a "solidarity principle," such that not only is it designed as a platform for retaining individual anonymity, but it also "symbolically represents a collective counter-power [End Page 201] against NSA [National Security Agency] surveillance."1 Taken more broadly, Tor is a form of resistance that inhibits any kind of online tracking program that automatically records and statistically assesses one's access to information and communication servers.

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Fig 2.

Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum...


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pp. 199-231
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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