The Town Where Wireless Signals Are Illegal

NRAO
NRAO

Shhh! The scientists are listening to space!

Green Bank, West Virginia, is a tech-savvy teenager’s nightmare. In this tiny town in Pocahontas County—population 143, as of the last census—wireless signals are illegal. No cell phones. No WiFi. No Bluetooth. No electronic transmitters at all. Recently, a store even had to remove their automatic doors because they caused too much interference.

The remote town is smack in the center of the National Radio Quiet Zone, a 13,000 square mile stretch of land designated by the FCC to protect two government radio telescopes from man-made interference. The rules, though, are most strict in Green Bank’s neck of the woods. So strict, actually, that someone roves the streets listening for verboten wireless signals.

It’s necessary, though. The town is home to the Green Bank Telescope, the largest steerable radio telescope in the world—and arguably our most powerful link to the cosmos. Scientists there listen to radio energy that has journeyed light years, unlocking secrets about how the stars and galaxies formed. A rogue radio signal could prevent potential discoveries, discoveries that could answer big questions about how the universe ticks.

Green Bank, West Virginia: A Visitors Guide

In Green Bank, finding cell phone service is the only thing harder than finding another human. A flip of the radio dial won’t reward you, either—it’s all a steady whoosh of white noise. If you’re lucky, though, you may catch a faint flicker of the only AM broadcasting from the area, hosted by the Allegheny Mountain Radio Network.

First responders are the only residents allowed to use communication radios, although they’re limited to short-distance CB radios. If you get lost, one pay phone is there to rescue you—a pay phone, mind you, that people actually use. And you can search the web there, too, but you’ll have to get used to the grating ping of a dial-up modem again. (Although some homes have ethernet, it’s generally not worth it for companies to bring in anything faster.)

Surprisingly, a ban on all things wireless hasn’t driven residents away; it’s actually drawn people all across the United States to settle down. Sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity—a disease supposedly caused by wireless signals, but dismissed by the scientific community—have moved into the electronic dead space.

If you're in Green Bank and desperately need to update social media, you’re in luck: Recently, engineers at AT&T brought cellular connectivity to the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, which lies in the center of the quiet zone. Doing this was no easy task, because they needed to get the radio wave interference down to extremely low levels. In a post on AT&T’s website, the director of the site, Dr. Karen O’Neil, explained the problems involved. To get approval, AT&T installed 180 antennas around the resort and 3 miles of fiberoptic cable so that the signals don’t need to travel very far. Which is good, because they also had to lower the power—according to O’Neil, your phone ordinarily emits 500 milliwatts when you’re using it. But if you’re skiing the slopes, that goes down automatically to less than a milliwatt.

A version of this story appeared in 2013; it has been updated to add new information.

What's the Difference Between a Router and a Modem?

iStock.com/Grassetto
iStock.com/Grassetto

Despite using it every day, the internet is still a mystery to many of its users. If asked to explain how your home internet connection works, you may start with your router and modem. Both devices are essential to setting up a wireless network, but they serve distinct functions. Here are the major differences between the two pieces of hardware that make home internet run.

What is a Modem?

Cable modem.
iStock.com/sambrogio

The modem is your home's gateway to the World Wide Web. It's often a skinny box with a row of LED icons on the front that tell you if it's on and connected to the internet. The name is short for modulator-demodulator—a phrase left over from the days of dial-up when modems worked by modulating telephone signals into frequencies that could send digital information.

Today, most modems use broadband connections like cable or satellite to transmit data. There are different types of modems built to fit different connections. If your internet service provider (ISP) uses cable or fiber internet, you'll need to plug a cable into the back of your modem, and if you still use a digital subscriber line (DSL), you'll have to plug in a phone line.

What is a Router?

Internet router.
iStock.com/farakos

You can connect to the internet with just a modem as long as you don't mind plugging your device directly into the Ethernet port. But if you want to provide internet to all the laptops, desktops, and smartphones in your home at the same time, you'll need a router.

Routers usually lie flat and have antennas sticking out of them. The router hooks up to your modem via an Ethernet cable and acts as a conduit between the direct internet and your home network. After connecting your devices, the router "routes" your modem's networking traffic their way, either through Ethernet wires or wirelessly through Wi-Fi (that's what the antennas are for). The router also works in the other direction by routing data sent from your computer back to the web.

Why Knowing the Difference Matters

When they've been sitting in the same spot in your home for years, it's easy to think of your router and modem as basically the same thing. But it's worth knowing the difference—especially if you care about improving your internet connection. Now that you know the router is what directs Wi-Fi signals, you can boost your home network by placing it in a central location away from electronic appliances. And as long as it doesn't interfere with the router, feel free to hide your modem behind a houseplant.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Hackers Used Facebook Quizzes to Steal Data from 60,000 Users

iStock.com/bombuscreative
iStock.com/bombuscreative

It’s been a tumultuous few months for Facebook. A data breach in fall 2018 exposed information about 30 million of its users to hackers. Only a few months later, the company was also criticized for paying individuals to voluntarily install an app that collected information about their smartphone habits. Now, it’s dealing with concerns that some of the quizzes available on the platform have been used to collect data from unsuspecting users.

According to CNN, the scheme is detailed in a lawsuit Facebook filed in California last week against developers Andrey Gorbachov and Gleb Sluchevsky. The defendants, who are based in Kiev, Ukraine, allegedly created quizzes like, “Do you have royal blood?” or “What does your eye color say about you?” as a way to access private user data. When Facebook users interacted with these tests, they were prompted to install browser extensions that allowed the alleged hackers to pose as those users, collecting information as well as taking control of their browsers. The improperly obtained information consisted of names, ages, and friend lists, which hackers then used for targeted advertising that they injected into users' feeds.

It’s possible the breach also resulted in the publication of 81,000 private messages in 2018, which was initially blamed on unspecified malware browser extensions that have not yet been publicly identified. Facebook has yet to confirm the two incidents are related, however.

Facebook said that the primary targets of the operation were Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking users, with 60,000 browsers compromised.

This isn't the only time Facebook quizzes have been tied to data breaches. Last year’s Cambridge Analytica controversy revealed that the firm used quizzes and questionnaires on Facebook to surreptitiously compile data on millions of users.

So what should you do about it? Online security experts caution against third-party apps that are accessed through Facebook. If you’re concerned about utilities that you installed without much thought, you can see a list by clicking on Settings, then the Apps link on the left menu. If you don’t recognize an app, it’s best to delete it.

[h/t CNN]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER