You've probably seen it a thousand times and even thought "Hey, why not?" but it never seems to work. Don't worry - you're not alone - and this weekend NPR ferreted out the story behind the ever present and never functional "Free Public WiFi".
Everywhere you go, there it is...but it isn't because the government finally started offering ubiquitous WiFi for public use without you knowing. Instead, it's a bug in Windows XP that started years ago and has spread computer to computer, like a virus.
According to wireless security expert Joshua Wright, the bug has been around for about four years now and, although mostly harmless, could provide an entry point for mal-intentioned visitors.
Here's the explanation of the phenomena from NPR:
When a computer running an older version of XP can't find any of its "favorite" wireless networks, it will automatically create an ad hoc network with the same name as the last one it connected to -- in this case, "Free Public WiFi." Other computers within range of that new ad hoc network can see it, luring other users to connect. [...] Computers with the XP bug that try to connect to the Internet will remember the name, create their own ad hoc networks and entice other users wherever they go.
Microsoft is aware of the issue and says it has eliminated the network in more recent versions of Windows. It also created a fix to the problem for the older version of Windows XP -- Windows XP Service Pack 3 -- but many people still haven't updated their computers.
In fact, the spread may go beyond dead-end "Free Public WiFi" networks and, if you take a closer look, many of those "linksys", "default" and "hpsetup" networks that are so common may simply be no-good, ad hoc networks too.
At least now we know we weren't the only ones wandering around town in the dark as to how to connect to this apparently free public resource.