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Thinking inside the PirateBox

In the age of communication, facing restricted internet access can make us feel confined. We’d like to introduce you to PirateBox. It’s completely legal, doesn’t need an internet connection, and it’s cheap as chips to make yourself. So, what the frack is a PirateBox?

Simply put, it’s a way to share files and communicate offline. This little box can be used to chat in a forum to anyone within range, or to upload files and share information. It’s all above board, with the technology freely available and open source. The open license also means anyone can change or share the raw code, so you can adapt your PirateBox however you want. You can use any device with a web browser to see the content, for example photographs and message forums, but you never actually connect to the internet. Savvy?

Making a PirateBox is about as straightforward as it could be. As Lush Senior Developer Simon Ince says: “The people at PirateBox have made things as easy as possible, because they want everyone to have a go at making one.” The cheapest and easiest way to make a PirateBox is to get yourself a router, a USB dongle and the free PirateBox software. Pop the software on the USB, plug it into the router, and trick the router into thinking it’s doing a firmware update - the PirateBox file will do everything else. Once that’s done, you can connect to the PirateBox network through your wifi, then open http://piratebox.lan in your web browser. As it’s open source, you can make the PirateBox look however you like, but as standard it comes with a message forum, live chat and file sharing. The PirateBox website has easy to follow instructions, with much more detailed technical information.

In true here’s one I made earlier style, we’ve put together a PirateBox at Lush, using a router that only cost £20. Our PirateBox can be accessed from about 100 yards away, and Simon assures us that with a strong enough router, one box could be reached by a whole city.

PirateBoxes are fun, but they also have practical applications. In areas without internet connection, people can easily access chat forums and share information digitally. Simon tells us: “As you don’t actually have to have internet access to connect, you don’t need to pay an internet service provider - which means it’s free to use.” This technology could be a handy way to share photos on a campsite, allow online conversations in remote areas, and could even be used in refugee camps to share helpful information and encourage collaboration.

In areas that are facing media blackouts, PirateBoxes can be used to circumnavigate censorship. Media can be shared, important information accessed, and loved ones contacted. Images, articles or videos could be uploaded to the box, then taken to somewhere with internet connection for wider dissemination. Anyone within reach can get access to the box, and users are anonymous. As Simon comments: “Because a PirateBox is it’s its own network, it can’t be shut down. You can connect to it and talk about what’s happening.”

There are less serious uses for PirateBox too, and they’re a fun piece of tech for anyone digitally-minded. Simon once created a PirateBox by turning his phone into a wifi hotspot, creating a chat forum for a wifi-less coachload of bored passengers. PirateBoxes could also be used to teach children how to create websites, giving them their own little microcosm of the internet.

There’s a lot of scope with a PirateBox, and it could certainly be a way forward when dealing with internet censorship and areas without internet.


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