How it seems that where I happen to live, none of this network is real..

The Helium network has been growing extremely fast. I had checked coverage on my island of Lantau, Hong Kong in early Dec 2021 and only found 1 or 2 hotspots. Now at the end of Jan 2022 there are over 50 visible on the official Helium Explorer, and most of them have been doing very well mining HNT. So I excited to try and use the network with my devices, as there are currently only 2 TTNv3 gateways on Lantau (incl mine).

The Helium console is quick slick, and it’s easy to create a device, get the devEUI, appEUI and appKey for my Arduino sketch that i used with TTN, on the same node hardware as i used for my gateway range experiments (2.5km on SF7). However, to my surprise, sitting at my home location (X on the below map), my device was not able to join the Helium network, although i could see the join requests coming in on my LoRaWAN TTN gateway, and i’m surrounded by very successful Helium hotspots. Or am i?

Of course it occurred to me that somehow my end device might not be properly setup for the Helium network, so i took it on a trip to downtown Hong Kong to see if it would be picked up by any hotspots there. And yes, i did get manage to reach one (!) Helium hotspot called Icy Alabaster Tadpole, located near North Point.

This hotspot was around 3.5km away, so it’s very surprising that the more nearby hotspots did not pick up my device. But that of course assumes they actually exist in the location on the map, which i found out is not guaranteed, and a problem that has been widely known for years as location spoofing, and according to this report is getting worse, just have a look at r/HeliumNetwork and the Helium’s Discord channel #poc-discussion.

real hotspot transferring real data, 3.5km from my device on the left, near the Central Ferry Piers, to the hotspot on the right, North Point

I was expecting the very successful hotspot Formal Raisin Barracuda, located in Wan Chai, to be able to receive my device, as it has been witnessing beacons today from over 20km away. For anybody familiar with the topography of Hong Kong, it is easy to understand that this is ridiculous. So as far as i understand, this particular hotspot, and all of the ones it links to, are spoofed locations.

fake hotspot with very far fake friends

The sad thing is that the working hotspot earned around $2 over the last 2 weeks, while the fake one got $78.

real hotspot performing under network average
fake hotspot beating the network average
fake hotspot has never received any real data

Update 28 Jan 2022: It now appears that this above hotspot is on the new Helium denylist, as shown on Hotspotty, with filter online+denylist. However, the fake hotspots on Lantau have come online more recently and are not included in the denylist yet. More about the denylist in my Medium article.

Back to Lantau. How difficult would it be to make sure we are dealing with fake hotspots here? After reading up on it a bit, a few indicators of what seems to be called ‘gaming the network’ or ‘spoofing locations’:

  • locations are too good to be true: only 1 hotspot per hex (yes)
  • locations are unrealistic: remote places, only reachable on foot or by boat (yes)
  • they witness only each other (yes)
  • the belong to the same accounts, or a group of accounts (yes)
  • installed around the same time (yes)
  • all of the same vendor (yes)
network of successful fake hotspots

It is clear that the Helium team does not consider this a priority. They are more concerned about ‘growing the network’, as in, selling more licensed miners, which increases the demand for HNT. It has even been suggested that some Helium parties, including licensed vendors, are into this scam. Helium keeps repeating that they welcome this discussion and the PoC algorithm makes spoofing less interesting, but that does not seem to be the case here; these hotspots are very successful, above average network earnings.

These fraudulent hotspots have not been added to the Helium denylist yet, as shown here on Hotspotty. They have only been online since 2 weeks.

Hotspotty fraudulent hotspots, on the Helium denylist on 28 Jan 2022 – note the Lantau ones are not included yet

If i had invested in a Helium hotspot, this obvious cheating would make me angry. Helium started a denylist but that is putting the onus on the users to go after the bad apples, while Helium just keeps neglecting the failure of the PoC algorithm, and continues to get big brands onboard based on their ‘massive coverage’. Seriously, with today’s AI available, how difficult can it be to see some patterns as in the above example?

I have posted my concerns in the Helium Discord #poc-discussion and i am very curious if they will follow up on this.

Update 28 Jan 2022: My remarks in the Discord channel generated a bit of discussion, but it’s clear to me that most of people involved have no clue and their main concern is that they might be included in the denylist by accident. Plus it remains very unclear how the denylist will be activated via hotspot firmware releases, at the discretion of the hotspot manufacturers.

Trying out the Helium LoRaWAN network [scam alert]

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