The following is an account of events that actually took place. In the words of Charlie Wilson, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world…” (well, they changed our highschool).
New technology is often by nature disruptive; I’ve always found it fascinating to observe budding disruptions and consider their possible long-term implications. I would also contest that revolution is most often borne of frustration, as the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt Lybia, Syria (and, well, the rest of history…) indicate.
So my good friend Fraser Parlane and I were treading on fertile ground in our Grade 12 year when the student WiFi was being repeatedly switched off as the content filtering system was continually breached. Even on the best of days though, internet staples such as youtube, gmail, and Google image search were outright blocked. Considering the UN’s recent resolution (PDF) that internet access is a fundamental human right, these restrictions were bemoaned by many – especially those who used these services for school purposes.
Roughly a year earlier, Rogers had enabled internet tethering on the iPhone – a feature I often employed to ensure I always had uninterrupted and unimpeded access to the internet. I could keep the iPhone in my pocket, entirely out of sight and within school regulations, and activate Bluetooth tethering from my computer. Being quite passionate about mobile wireless broadband – attending the CTIA (Cellular Telephone Industry Association) conference and trade show several times in Las Vegas, the future of the industry was often at the forefront of my thoughts. We are speeding towards an era where all electronic devices will have an internet connection of some form or another, and certainly towards an era where mobile devices such as cellphones, laptops and tablets will be internet enabled anywhere. What then, will schools do to filter content when every laptop in the classroom has its own independent internet connection?
There are only a few options should schools continue to desire to gate-keep the internet. The most imminent solution would likely be to ban personal laptops in the classroom as schools currently ban cellphones. This would hardly be moving education towards the electronics-based future we all know awaits it, and the only option for moving forward in this case would have the school provide every student with a laptop or tablet as a replacement. Giving students laptops has been met with mixed results – with some districts finding success while others see students using their laptops as toboggans – even without considering the extreme cost.
Because mobile broadband operates over frequencies licensed to telecommunications companies by the federal government, under the oversight of Industry Canada, mobile broadband cannot simply be blocked. To do so would be a federal offense, as these frequencies are also responsible for access to essential services such as 911. The only partial solution would be to design buildings to impede certain frequencies – much like a Faraday cage – which is also prohibitively expensive and unlikely.
While at the time every mobile device certainly did not have a mobile broadband connection, most if not all had WiFi. My iPhone happened to have a six gigabyte data plan, courtesy of a Rogers panic attack when over 60,000 people signed the ‘ruinediphone.com’ petition back when the iPhone was originally introduced in Canada. Fraser happened to have a locker he never used and an old spare laptop. I had a few spare Meraki gateways lying around from projects I had done through Wioka. Add a power inverter and a car battery, and ‘project 2047′ was live (2047 was the number of the locker our station was housed).
The exact configuration had the iPhone USB tethered to the laptop, which was connected to the Meraki access point through a Cat5 crossover cable. The USB Ethernet emulator interface from the iPhone was simply bridged with laptop’s standard Ethernet port. The iPhone assigned the laptop an IP address from Rogers, and the laptop assigned an IP address to the Meraki access point, which was configured to act as a ‘captive portal’, explaining the purpose of the network and requesting users to accept a terms of service before gaining access. It was beautiful – we even had an old cheap webcam monitoring the LED voltage readout on the power inverter, uploading stills every 30 seconds or so to an external site through FTP to ensure we would never drain the battery.
The battery would last about a week on a single charge, though unfortunately once the power inverter detected the battery was at 11 volts it would emit a shrieking alarm (presumably to ensure you’re always able to start your vehicle). This caused a precarious situation right before lunch one day, when I checked the voltage readout from the webcam feed in the library. I don’t remember what the charge was that morning, but I do remember expecting to be in the clear for at least another few days – not so, according to the image that was greeting me with a stomach-churning 10.9 V. That could only mean the alarm was sounding right now. Sure enough, just as I entered the upstairs hallway that contained the locker project 1147 was housed, a unmistakeable alternating warble could be plainly heard. Unfortunately, a few seconds later the lunch bell rang and students spilled out of the classroom en masse.
Of course, the first thing students do at lunch is head to their lockers to deposit their books and retrieve their lunch. An elaborate scheme ensued that saw Fraser and myself frantically trying to open the locker to rip off the power inverter’s leads attached to the car battery, blocked by a few others ‘in-the-know’ surrounding the locker. A shrieking alarm tends to become louder when the locker that contains it is opened, and this was no exception. Despite our efforts several people gained a glimpse at project 2047 that lunch – though it was the custodian who observed Fraser and I removing the battery for recharging after school that day who ultimately spelled the project’s demise.
Removing the battery for recharging was quite a process (one I liked to imagine was not unlike changing fuel rods on a nuclear reactor). Like most car batteries, it contained a significant amount of lead. Lead, for the uninitiated, is quite heavy. Project 2047 was on the second floor – and this this thing was not going to fit in a backpack. The solution we settled on was to use a suitcase to transport the dead battery in and out of the school to an awaiting vehicle. We would as inconspicuously as possible use the suitcase to block as much of the locker as possible, remove the battery from the locker and proceed to make our getaway. It was during this short process that our school’s new custodian made his way down the hallway, his eyes pausing curiously on this locker full of wires and antennas. Without saying a word he continued on his way.
Should he have been at KCS for a while, he probably would have thought nothing of the strange sight. Fraser and I could often be seen at the school at all times of day and night, often busy with potentially much more dangerous projects and activities (that usually involved scaffolding and ladders). He was new, though, and probably felt compelled let administration know of this odd situation.
Our vice principal the next day casually asked Fraser if he had a car battery in his locker, to which, of course, Fraser replied that he had. I understand a slight pause emerged – the obvious question of ‘why’ hanging in the air – before our VP commented that it could be a potential fire hazard.
And so ended The Social Experiment. What surprised us most was that people were actually using it, and that the Meraki’s 200 mW radio was strong enough to cover the entire west wing of the school – despite being fully enclosed in a metal locker.
We apologize to our locker-neighbors for any fear of microwave-radiation contaminated lunches, though we have it on high authority that death or illness is unlikely. We apologize to KCS for disrupting the paradigm of internet filtering – we certainly understand the potential for abuse and the danger of inappropriate content. You were just using technology not up to the task of filtering modern internet services. For the record, we channeled all traffic through Open DNS’ free service – with content filter settings set appropriately.
I am happy to comment that KCS has now partially implemented Open DNS on its network.