Pirate Box

PirateBox logo

This year, I have been playing with a Pirate Box, which I made from an old home router that I flashed with OpenWRT. I came across this project a while ago, and eventually make one early this year.

A Pirate Box is basically a file server with a captive portal style web interface, and an open wifi access point. So, anyone can see the PirateBox wifi network, connect, and when they try to browse the web they’ll be redirected to a page where they can upload and download files. Some key points which make this system notable are that anyone can upload, there is no authentication, and no logging. ALso, it’s not connected to the internet.

It’s comparable to USB dead drops, but with wifi. USB dead drops are USB flash drives which are stuck in public places, like cemented into a wall for example. There is a map of them on the web.

I was quite excited at the idea of having a PirateBox on my ship. I imagined running it at anchor, so that other boats and sailors could share things like charts, local info, pilots, other less useful but entertaining things. The Pirate box also includes chat, and this could be extended with AIS like info maybe, so you can see who you are talking to around you.

Anyway, it didn’t really work out. Noöne used it. I can’t be sure it was never used - remember there is no logging - but I didn’t see any evidence of it. I have a wifi activity LED on the box, which never did anything exciting. Noöne uploaded anything either, or commented in the chat box. I have tried running the box in various likely places - an alternative cafe, a hackerspace which also has many offices and a pub within range, marinas, anchorages - but never received any files.

What’s the problem? I think there are several. When the project was conceived some years ago, people didn’t have mobile data connections. I guess people generally are not looking for wifi as much as they used to, especially in anchorages where they may just assume there is none, and not even try.

If they do see it, maybe some people are put off by the name. Of course, it should attract others, so not convinced this is a big problem.

After connecting, there could be problems from various modern operating systems interfering. Mobile phones at least, do this like marking a network as having “No internet”, opening limited captive portal login pages, etc. There is an assumption by these systems that the only useful network is the internet, making it harder to run an independent network, however useful it may be.

The proliferation of HTTPS also makes things harder. Captive portals generally rely on intercepting an HTTP connection, but as almost all sites people go to now are encrypted, they can’t make themselves known unless an HTTP site is requested, so people will just see failed connections to google.com, etc.

There is RFC 7710, which proposes a method of advertising the captive portal login page using a DHCP option, but I don’t know if anyone is actually using this.

Maybe it would help to name the network something like “Go to piratebox.lan”.

In the end, I got bored of it, and turned it into a private file / media server. Even this is handy on the boat, and actually it has been extended for other functions too as a general boat router.