Why you should care
Because wouldn’t it be cool to have your very own Internet?
Have you ever tried to email a colleague a big file full of important data, only to have your email server bounce it back for being too large? Or maybe you’ve looked for a way to share sensitive files but worried that your data would somehow leak onto the Web without your permission. David Darts has felt your pain. As an art professor, Darts found himself stuck between his need to hand out large media files to his students and his university’s restrictive network policy. Passing a USB flash drive around the class struck Darts as a ridiculous way to do it.
He searched for a commercial solution but was surprised to find nothing out there. So he began work on what would ultimately become PirateBox, a collaborative communication and file-sharing platform. Think of it as a portable mashup of DropBox and Reddit that doesn’t require an Internet connection. PirateBox can be embedded in a $30, pocket-sized Wi-Fi router and set up anywhere you can find a power outlet.
Anyone connected to a PirateBox can upload or download (or stream!) any media file.
Darts isn’t your typical hacker. He holds a Ph.D. in curriculum theory and art from the University of British Columbia, he’s an associate professor and chair emeritus of the New York University art department and he’s currently setting up an art studio in Abu Dhabi. “Until I started my doctorate, I didn’t even own a computer,” Darts admits. His first PirateBox prototype “was pretty decent,” and soon Darts was taking it out with him into public spaces to see what would happen. “Folks started joining [the PirateBox] often by accident just looking for free, open wireless networks.” He was convinced it was interesting enough to post online: Instead of purchasing a PirateBox, he’d let anyone build his or her own.
Since open-sourcing his work, a small but passionate community has sprung up around Darts’s invention. His Linux-based code has been adapted into projects like the LibraryBox. The PirateBox online forum boasts thousands of posts discussing ways to implement or change the platform, and there’s even a PirateBox Camp that saw 25 attendees in its second year.
It’s more than a coders’ playground. Since anyone connected to a PirateBox can upload or download (or stream!) any media file, it’s the perfect real-time album for weddings or similar gatherings. Just plug in your PirateBox, tell your guests how to connect and then sit back while people upload their photos and videos over the course of the event. You’ll never have to ask your guests to email them to you later, and they’ll be able to see everyone else’s photos (and keep their faves) before they leave.
The caveats to the PirateBox are identical to those of the Internet itself. You may run into content you’d prefer not to see, and in theory, there could be some malicious code in a PirateBox that might infect a user. Chris Camejo, director of assessment for NTT Com Security suggests that users exercise caution: PirateBox is “no different than any other file-sharing service when it comes to malware,” so there is a concern about “infected files being passed around accidentally and intentionally.” Darts hasn’t seen it yet but admits that it’s possible. Basic lesson: Don’t expect all pirates to be friendly.