First I should say that in a true captive portal or walled garden situation what I am about to tell you does not hold true; however, having used the same exercise to get free open internet in several locations, in multiple countries, I have to mention it you.
But first a little note about captive portals and walled gardens. Captive portals are typically what you experience when you go to a hotel and they want to charge you for internet access. You connect to their network and no matter what page you type in, you are redirected to their ‘please pay me’ or ‘please authenticate page’. The walled garden is normally the small range of websites you can still go to without payment – for example, the hotel website or airport checking websites. Walled gardens exist outside the world of captive portals.
Now these systems have been in place for a long time now but for some reason someone has decided to find a new way. There may have been a patent issue with router redirecting – I don’t remember what ended up happening – if someone knows, please comment. This ‘new way’ of walling people is just removing the address bar on whatever locked down browser they are running. The first time I saw this was on a hotel tv in Dallas. They had a keyboard remote which I didn’t fully understand until later because I didn’t see the pay for internet option immediately. I was flipping around and came to their website on the tv (some option about amenities) and while I could freely navigate their website; no key combination would take me to the beautiful world wide web. That is when I noticed the ‘Follow us on Twitter’ at the bottom. So, what is Twitter besides a place to communicated food recently eaten? Twitter is a search engine. I need Google, easy enough, search for Google on Twitter and then click their web link. But that night I didn’t need Google. I wanted to see CBS’ “Under the Dome” – with another Twitter search, CBS was playing the latest episode in HD. I found out later when checking what else was available on the TV that internet access (I guess just the address bar access) was $12.95 a night.
Of course, I have to put in the disclaimer that anything you type in can be and probably is being recorded. Since they control the interfaces / browser, even encrypted sites will not protect your input. I had set up cameras before heading away and had a temporary password that I could change easily from my phone so I didn’t feel worried about leaving my home security cameras up while I was going to sleep. It was comforting – almost like I never left home.
The second example of the same system (last one I will bore you with) was in the airport in Serbia. We had arrived early… really early… (Sorry, Igor) Alison is ridiculous about getting to the airport way too early but that is not exactly a terrible fault. We are so early that no one is checking in bags. I see the computer kiosk and have to put my fingers on it. What do you know, the Tesla Airport wants me to follow them on Twitter! Which let’s pause for a second: 1. They want me to follow them but don’t trust me with an address bar – horrible start to a relationship and 2. WHO FOLLOWS AIRPORTS on Twitter? The second concern I am serious about – if you are someone other than an airport employee or an employee of a contractor who deals with the airport (pilot/flight attendant/IT person running their twitter feed) and you have followed them for more than a month – I will pay for Digital Ocean hosting for you to blog about what happens at that airport because it has to be interesting or you have a Twitter bot that is out of control. Offer limited to the first two people that confess. Having sat in several meetings with the ‘business’ side of the world, I can just imagine them saying, “We need more Tweeter and we want it to pop. Put the link on all the check-in computers. Of all times to follow us on Tweeter, customers surely will do it when they are tired and in a hurry.” Luckily for me there was no one else at the airport yet, and Reddit could entertain me until it was check in time.
Since following social media links is such a trivial way to bypass the lack of address bar in a walled garden situation, I imagine that it will not be long until they clamp down on this open access, but until then have fun!
PS – other locations I have seen similar walled garden systems: mall info kiosk and convention center kiosks.