Objectionably-named wi-fi source at Jacoby’s Storehouse was hiding in plain sight all along

Cyber-detective Brett Watson tracks down the offensive wi-fi source in the Union's office Saturday afternoon. KLH | Union

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

PLAZA – It turns out the venerable Jacoby Building has more than one racially objectionable feature – one that disgusts building patrons and employees alike, but has stubbornly resisted elimination. Until last Saturday night.

The other thoroughly unwanted Storehouse feature has only been apparent to those who might glance at their phone, tablet or computer’s wi-fi settings while in or around the Plaza level, which is the building’s second floor.

For perhaps three years, as best anyone can remember, an unsecured wi-fi channel (see image) we’ll call “BCNB” has been raising eyebrows and objections among those looking to log on in the Storehouse.

More than one observer had suggested that, given its penchant for ribaldry and outrageous humor, maybe Savage Henry magazine, whose office is in the Storehouse, might be the source. But it wasn’t.

“We wouldn’t make something so racist and obscene as our wireless network,” said Savage Henry publisher Chris Durant. “As racy as we’d get is something with the word ‘farts’ in it. But it’s great to know we have such a great reputation with the merchant guild.”

Responding to complaints, Chino went to every business on the Plaza level and had them unplug their computers’ wi-fi routers. Nothing happened.

Recently, a building patron who had a wi-fi signal strength app on his smartphone helped Chino look for the source.

Alfred Hitchcock's profile, from his 1960s TV show.

The two roamed the floor until narrowing the location to a small patch of wall in the employee restroom, next to a crack in the paint that resembles Alfred Hitchcock. For lack of any better conclusion, it seemed as though the rogue signal was emanating from inside the wall. Confoundingly, the wall shows no sign of any recent modification or tampering. And how such a thing could have been powered for years on end was unknown.

Chino and building handyman Jay Brown then opened up access panels to ducts and crawlspaces in the area, clambering about between floors in search of the BCNB transmitter. They found a lot of dust, wires and old mechanical timers used to control fans, but no router or other device.

After last week’s merchants’ meeting, Chino systematically turned off circuit breakers to second floor offices in hopes of identifying the BCNB power source and finally figuring out its origin.

Alfred's crack. KLH | Union

As lights and computers went dark one by one around the building’s Plaza level, the BCNB wi-fi signal persisted, completely unaffected. However, some portions of the floor appear to be controlled by breakers on another level of the building.

It was possible that the BCNB signal originated in an adjacent building, yet it faded away in the back parking lot, resuming only in close proximity to the Storehouse’s southeast entrance.

The next step, Chino said, was the most costly – to tear into the wall and dig out whatever might be inside, sending out the offensive signal. That was to be  done this year as part of planned repairs.

On hearing of the problem, Plaza Grill patron, tech hobbyist and City Councilmember Brett Watson took on the cyber-mystery as a challenge, if not an obsession.

Watson looked at the identifying information in the wi-fi signal to determine the make and model of router as a Linksys E1200 N300. He then re-surveyed the second floor for the signal’s strength, gaining more accurate results. This time, the signal seemed to be strongest near the Union office’s southeast corner, where there is no computer equipment.

But on a desk on the other side of the wall, in the Living Quarters interior design studio, sat a demonstration unit for a wireless window blind remote control.

Visible through a hallway window, the demo unit sported an angular black plastic item jutting out from its base.  With owner Sandi Hunt’s permission, building co-owner Bill Chino went in to inspect.

There, mounted in the unit’s base was the exact model of Linksys router Watson had identified. When it was unplugged, BCNB’s signal disappeared. And the riddle was solved at last.

The router had been intended to hook the system in to the Internet, offering the user window blind control via cell phone.  

Hunt said the remote control unit had arrived years ago complete, in plug-and-play mode and with no setup required. She hadn’t known that it used wi-fi. That’s how the router eluded detection – Chino had had businesses unplug wireless routers attached to their computers; no one realized there was a standalone unit in use for something else.

Who gave the wi-fi channel its terrible name years ago is unknown, but Watson has offered to rename it. 

“I’m a full-service councilmember,” said tech detective Watson, who happens to be running for re-election this fall. “I will bring that same tenacity to all of the city’s problems.”

Postscript: Watson picked up the offending wi-fi router Wednesday, to take it away for renaming. But it turns out that the device served no purpose. The window blind remote control still works fine even when the router is unplugged. It had been annoying and embarrassing people for years, while doing nothing at all.

Postscript 2: The router has been returned with a new name, and it is now password-protected. The leading theory now is that, in its previously unsecured state, it was renamed by some unknown mischief-maker.



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