We use our computers and other devices everywhere. While phones are of course equipped with a SIM card that at least part of the time allows relatively cheap internet access via the GSM-network (of course today UMTS or LTE or whatever comes next), laptops usually do not have SIM cards, even though they could. So we rely on these WLANs that we find in Cafés, gas stations, shops, hotels, camp ground, airports, train stations, trains and sometimes even in cities. While we are used to paying for our SIM cards monthly fees or even volume based fees, the question if it should cost money to use a WLAN is still open. Some years ago the WLAN cost extra in most places. The problem was, that the effort for collecting the money was by some orders of magnitude higher than the effort for actually providing the WLAN, resulting in prices that were way too high. So the normal model is now that we pay for the camping, train, flight, hotel, coffee or whatever and some very very tiny fraction of this money is used to implement the WLAN. It does not hurt the people, who do not use it, because it is so little.
Now there are some ways to get into WLANs, which we all know too well:
- Open WLAN: just use it
- Password for WLAN required
- „Open“ WLAN, need to confirm the conditions
- „Open“ WLAN, need to provide phone number or email address with some verification
- „Open“ WLAN, need to give username + password on some page
While (1) is of course ok from a user point of view and (2) works very well for small sites like hotels, the other approaches are somewhat problematic and fragile.
They all rely on the assumption that the device uses the DNS as is provided by DHCP from the WLAN or on an intercepting proxy. Anyway, the network is in two different states. In the first state it does not behave regularly, but going to any page with the browser will actually lead to the login page. The internet will not work in the beginning, even though at network level everything is there, just the routing or maybe the DNS or the Web-Caching are skrewed up. My phone detects such a skrewed up internet and by itself opens the „login“-page by going to www.google.com, which of course is today https://www.google.com/. It won’t work, because it leads to a fake „www.google.com“, so the https-certificate is not correct and the browser refuses to show it, unless we really ask for an exception, which I would not recommend. Knowing this, we can always overcome the problem by just surfing to any site that is still not https and that is not in the browser cache. This is going to become harder, but is still possible. Is it ugly? I would think so. Even worse, there is a time window for doing this, and sometimes the login does not really work well, so we need to try it over and over again, until it finally works or we give up and use the phone as a temporary WLAN-router, hoping it will not break out of our free Megabytes. Verifying a phone number is not too bad, because via SMS there is a channel independent from the WLAN to transmit the verification code. Do we have a phone? I guess so, people without phone are really very rare, so I would consider that ok. Why do they need this information? Should they ask for it? I do not think so… It depends of course how much we trust in our current and future democracy and in our government and company organizations constraining themselves to legal and ethical conduct. But from a purly technical point of view this kind of works. The email is kind of cute. To confirm it, we need access to our email system, which in turn already requires internet. But it happens. Just confirming „terms and conditions“ is also kind of cute, because the option of actually reading them is offered, but rarely used. And they would know it, if they just looked into their logs.
So I would really love to just use the internet and I would really love to rely on people using the internet to behave legally and ethically without going through long terms and conditions. Maybe those who provide the internet need these, to ensure that they do not have to pay for fallacies of their internet users, but making them pay is not really a good idea. A criminal offense is the fault of a criminal and not of those who provide some common infrastructure for communication that is in no way specific to criminal activity. Actually those who are somewhat skilled in criminal activities also know their ways to hide their identity when using some WLAN.
The last one is kind of tricky. It does have some justification, because it allows for more fine granular access. But it still uses somewhat broken mechanisms by providing a broken internet to log in and then the working internet. I think it would be better to extend the WLAN standard to provide for a username+password-login instead of only using a password for the WLAN.
Btw., I recommend to assume that the WLAN is not safe and always run a firewall against the WLAN and do delicate access to other systems via the WLAN using a vpn like OpenVPN or of course encrypted variants of common internet protocols like ssh, https etc. The older WLAN encryption standard was just a joke. The current one is kind of ok but I prefer not to trust it. Since we use our devices in all kinds of WLANs anyway, trusting some WLANs and not trusting others is just too much risk in terms of misconfiguration. And as soon as we are accessible via the internet, the attackers are already there and scanning ports and some common URLs. If they are in the WLAN or not, I do not want to rely on them not being there…