Q: I didn’t pay for the Wi-Fi on a recent flight, but the Google apps on my phone worked anyway. How could that happen?
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A: For some time now, travel bloggers have noted that flights offering Gogo’s inflight Wi-Fi would let them use Google’s mobile apps without paying that air-to-ground service’s usual rates, from $5 an hour to $16 a day if purchased in advance.
I saw this firsthand on a United Airlines flight last October. (Gogo also sells domestic connectivity on Alaska, American, Delta, US Airways and Virgin America.) I thought I’d check the status of a connecting flight on my phone’s browser — access to the airline’s site was free — and was puzzled to see new messages appearing in its Gmail app.
The reason seems to lie in the way Gogo’s website, also always free over its Wi-Fi, employs Google’s AdSense, DoubleClick and Google Analytics tracking services to monitor your use. You can see and control their activity and that of other third-party apps by installing the free Ghostery browser extension.
And while Gogo can redirect Web requests to its own login page, the same way most hotel Wi-Fi behaves until you pay up, it hasn’t been able to block non-Web services coming from Google.
(Note, however, that I’ve yet to see this app-centric trick work over United’s far more widely deployed satellite-based Wi-Fi, which comes from different vendors.).
For a detailed breakdown of this, consult a lengthy post from Santa Barbara, Calif., Developer Bryce Boe that also outlines how this could be exploited to allow unrestricted Web access and suggests ways Gogo could close that loophole, at a potential cost in compatibility and usability.
Boe wrote in that March 2012 post that he’d advised Gogo about this issue but had not gotten any response beyond an initial acknowledgment of his report. He said Wednesday that he still hadn’t heard anything from the company.
Nobody at Gogo wanted to speak for attribution, but I can summarize my conversations with people at that Itasca, Ill., Firm as such:.
• Yes, they’ve known about this Google exception for a while.
• They can live with people treating it as a happy bonus, as long as this doesn’t result in a major loss in revenue.
• In other cases, apparently involving services less essential than the widely used Google Analytics, they have shut down this kind of workaround.
So I don’t think that giving a little more publicity to this Google exception will ruin it for everybody. But if you all go crazy using Google’s apps to download apps or music or engage in higher-level tinkering to get free Web access, that might. Please be considerate.
Tip: An Android app can map your location at 35,000 feet.
One of the lesser-known facts about Android is that unlike iOS, its GPS still works in airplane mode. So if I’m curious about what landmark we’re flying over and the flight offers neither Wi-Fi nor a map function on a seatback monitor, I can run a free app called FlyoverGPS to check the plane’s position, altitude, speed and heading.
This program needs a few minutes to pull in enough signals from the constellation of GPS satellites. I usually tap the “View Status” button in its menu to follow that progress, then jump back to its map after it reports a signal lock. It includes a cached map of the U.S., But you can download a more detailed view beforehand.
Because GPS doesn’t transit any data, using it shouldn’t violate the Federal Aviation Administration’s guidelines or the airlines’ own rules — Delta and Virgin America’s specifically allow GPS use. But if a flight attendant tells you to shut down this app, please do so and go back to reading the inflight magazine or browsing the oddities on sale in the SkyMall catalog (while you still can, since it has filed for bankruptcy protection).
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.Com/robpegoraro.