Hertzian Hacktivism

My good friend Justin Pickard pointed me towards this wonderful project over the weekend and honestly I am so full of praise and inspired by it. It’s a device that purports to be able to hijack Wi-Fi hotspots and therefore control the web content viewed by any device that connects to that network.

I am still trying to make sense of the code mechanics behind it all to discern if it is feasible and can do exactly what it says on the tin – as per vimeo demonstration here:

EDIT Alas according to this commentator it transpires that this hack does not do the radical things as advertised. But even if this is more hoax than hack, in terms of a gesture alone this project is noteworthy.

I guess what strikes me most is the idea of altering content at the point of reception rather than the point of distribution, and this is mostly so due to recent discussions of 1984 being fresh in my mind. There is also a spirit of rogue, anarchistic, opportunism about this device that calls to mind the punk ethos of hacking in all its ‘fuck the machine’ glory.

Also I can’t help but love the idea of how this device could potentially act like a network cultures cuckoo, were it subtle enough. Deceiving the devices that connect to it in order to change their (and their users perceptions on things). Also if one is prone to fretting over the day when RFID enabled devices and databases are chattering back and forth with one another at inhuman speeds then this project offers definite cause for pause. In fact the ability to make some form of intervention into those systems might prove to be a far more interesting deployment of this form of hack. (I will confess that it was Katherine Hayles who captured my imagination with this scenario of RFID semi-sentience of objects in this article and that I haven’t surveyed the technologically feasibility or current state of affairs RE this scenario)

And to be honest, though it looks likely to be an unfeasible hack, I think any project which makes people do a double take when they visit their usual gatekeepers of information dissemination is extremely laudable.

More broadly I love this project because of how it’s tapping into wirelessness, the general appropriation of the hertzian spectrum for rapid binary data transfer. This project’s ethos has already captured exactly what I hoped to illuminate when the White Spaces of vacated TV spectrum became an issue in this country.


White Spaces are a complex issue, a short summary would be that they’ll become an issue in the UK once analogue TV broadcasting ceases (or perhaps beforehand, depends on where Ofcoms powers on the matters stand). When all TV switches to Digital Terrestrial Transmission there will be slivers of spectrum lying fallow, or not being utilised because of the way that digital TV transmission squeezes more bang for your buck from the radio frequency spectrum. In the US these slivers, called “white spaces” were a major battleground of contestation, with heavyweight computer and cellphone company contenders squaring up to television networks. The former wants to use whitespaces to enhance wireless delivery of data and content whereas the latter sees such usage as potentially detrimental to DTT picture quality. The matter rumbles on across the Atlantic Ocean, and I imagine Ofcom (or whoever makes the final call over here) is taking notes on how that whole issue pans out.  (I am indebted to Bill Ray of the The Register for his insight into this issue as it pertains to the UK)

The MAIM graduate in me sees those White Spaces as a site of potential media intervention, and the spirit of this intervention opens up lots on interesting possibilities to toy with the aforementioned spectrum slivers. The other way I’d hoped to play with the White Spaces was along the lines of Jao Hilbert’s (a notable MAIM alumni!) previous work.

Jao’s signal jacker is an admittedly brute force intervention in the hertzian ecology but it achieves a similar aim. Jao worked with wireless CCTV, and accordingly this manner of intervention would be more difficult to target at something like White Spaces, due to the proposed manners by which said spectrum will be utilised (which I can detail to anyone interested, it just is rather dry and technical). And to be honest I believe that drawing attention to this realm of everyday experience is pertinent if, as some seers point out, the wireless internet will eventually become the area most affected by the two tier policy that is looking likely to be ushered in.

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~ by Stephen Fortune on January 10, 2011.

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