Digital, Wireless Dead-Drops On The Cheap

I like wireless technology, and I have a soft spot for sneaky cloak and dagger stuff. A long time ago I read about a non-internet-connected wireless dead-drop called PirateBox, and I really liked the idea. It was kind of subversive and hyper-local, and I liked that it kept no logs and allowed anyone to post content. Being a little strapped for cash however I thought I wasn’t in a position to put one together — a piratebox was about $150-200 to put together when it was first announced, which is a little steep for me for a quick weekend project.

A few things happened though — first, I did a bake-sale at for a semi-related wireless project which brought in a bit of cash to play with. Second, the PirateBox sofware was released for the TP-Link TL-WR703N, a $20-30 3G Internet Stick Router.

I already had a 703N for the above-mentioned wireless project, and it was sitting around doing nothing. I picked up a 64GB, $32 USB storage drive and stuck it in the 703n’s USB port, flashed the PirateBox firmware on the 703n, and I had a working dead-drop.

Picture of a PirateBox

My PirateBox hangs out on Hacklab’s ceiling near the front windows.

Associating a phone or laptop with the PirateBox and opening up a browser will get you the PirateBox front page, where you can upload files, chat in real-time with other users, use an imageboard, download files other people have uploaded, or use it as a wireless media server. It’s pretty great. If I really wanted to turn it into a spy-movie plot device I could trade messages with my friends at over the PirateBox with messages hidden steganographically in images on the imageboard. And if I wanted to take it another step further I could rig up a solar charging circuit, stick the entire thing in a waterproof box and hide it in a tree somewhere, Geo-caching style.

So far I’ve loaded most of the works of Cory Doctorow on it, some music by Good Old Neon, and a few documentaries — all CC licensed content that I was able to download for free with few restrictions. The PirateBox gets some attention during Hacklab’s Tuesday Night Open House as well, with people downloading content and uploading things they want to share.  It’s slowly filling with weird and wonderful content.

The speeds are very slow however — 200KB/s upload and 1000KB/s download when both the router and the USB stick should be able to do much more than that. I’m going to try investigating what the issue is when I have some spare time, but for now I power the device down and connect the usb stick directly to my computer when I want to add a large file.

I think after dealing with speed issues, next steps are to see about powering the PirateBox via an external USB battery, and taking it with me during morning rush-hour on the Subway. There’s no cell reception or wifi down there, so I’ll be the only access point people can connect to underground. Maybe I can use the built-in PirateBox chatroom to converse with the various subway riders while they’re on their way to work. This reminds me in part of the Dark (Roast) Net from the Sentient City Survival Kit, another neat project.

Anyway, it was a fun project to slap together.  If you’re ever at the Hacklab you should contribute some content.


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