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Although many people like to rely on their laptop computer to detect available wireless networks at a particular location, devices known as WiFi® sniffers were created specifically to capture this information. The basic premise being that before someone goes to the trouble of starting up their computer, they can verify that there is indeed a compatible and available wireless broadband network in the area.
WiFi® sniffers are available both as stand-alone, hard-top items and as software add-on applications for a person's portable wireless devices. Many of these add-on applications for smartphones and PDAs are free of charge; as the penetration of portable wireless devices has increased, it has rendered hard-top WiFi® sniffers obsolete for all but the most specialized of IT personnel.
Some companies have banned WiFi® sniffer software and applications that have the capability to randomly scan for available networks. These plug-ins, also known as stumblers, were removed in favor of authorized directory-based applications. Both free and fee-based directory applications and plug-ins are commonly available.
In today's ultra-competitive, user-review driven Internet environment, much online discussion is now focused on which of these add-on WiFi® sniffers are the best at doing the sniffing. WiFi® sniffer reviews are readily available on online tech websites and social media platforms; users are quick to share their opinion about an add-on's effectiveness as soon as they have tried it.
WiFi® sniffers have recently been in the news for entirely different reasons as well. In 2010, Google generated a great amount of controversy and privacy concerns after it was determined that its Google Maps Street View trucks were sniffing WiFi® information from households and businesses on a given street. Google claimed it was an accident and replaced the software. Criminals, meanwhile, have been caught using WiFi® sniffers to virtually profile a target household's alarm system and individual objects of electronic value. As with all technological advancements, WiFi® sniffers are something of a Damocles sword, practical on the one hand and intrusive on the other.
WiFi® sniffers have other practical applications as well. They can be used to help identify the physical areas of a home or office where the broadband signal emanating from a central wireless router is most robust. Such information can help determine where to put desktop computers, routers and other Internet-ready devices within a particular space so as to maximize their reception capabilities.
@wander - I think a lot of people probably use their built in WiFi sniffers to find any network that is available. I know for myself my MP3 player connects with whatever network it happens to come across in an area automatically. As long as the network isn't password protected my MP3 player will latch onto the signal so I can enjoy surfing the web at no cost.
I think that if people really want to protect their bandwidth they need to put a password on their network. For myself I think nothing of downloading a movie or several songs on whatever network I am attached to. I am sure that adds up for someone, though who really knows. All Internet providers have different bandwidth limits.
I have always wondered how my laptop can find so many various WiFi spots when I am out and about. I guess it must be using an internal WiFi sniffer to find all of the networks that are available to connect to.
One of the things I must admit I take advantage of is those people who don't bother to password protect their WiFi. Often if you are in a busy neighborhood and are having trouble connecting to the network you want there are lots of networks that you can find and connect to in a pinch.
I suppose it is a bad idea to use someone's WiFi for free, but on the same token if they don't protect it, I think it is really is out there for anyone to use.