Town Square

Post a New Topic

Stanford grad's site nets Southwest 'cease and desist'

Original post made on Oct 23, 2012

When Nikil Viswanathan created a website to automatically check himself in to his flights on Southwest Airlines in January, he did it so that his mother wouldn't have to remind him anymore. But the Stanford computer-science graduate's 45-minute project has now garnered a cease-and-desist demand from the airline's attorneys.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, October 23, 2012, 5:13 PM

Comments (44)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 23, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Excellent hack. Too bad Southwest has no sense of humor.

You've got a bright future ahead of you Nikil.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Earl
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm

Maybe it's the survivalist in me, but I'll take a C ticket and fly in the last row over an A ticket and sit in the front every time.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Infrequent Flyer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Earl, the A-B-C designation has nothing to do with sections of seats. Rather, the A boarding allows you to choose any available seat, and all the As board and choose, and then the Bs board and choose, before the Cs get to. So with an A pass, you can sit in the back if you want, plus you can probably score an aisle or window seat, and get to sit with your traveling companions.

With a C pass, there's a good chance that you'll be stuck in a middle seat, and your traveling companions will be in middle seats in different rows. Maybe you also run a greater risk of being bumped from an overbooked flight. Not what most travelers want. Hence, the desirability of an A pass — and the ability of Southwest to make money by selling early-boarding privileges. And hence the desirability of a Website that allows one to check in as soon as allowable.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2012 at 7:58 pm



Nikil Viswanathan has just ended his career prospects with any legitimate company in the USA and Europe

Hacking is very a serious matter these days

Boasting about it just makes it so much worse

What a waste


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Betsey McGuiness
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 23, 2012 at 8:06 pm

@Sharon, perhaps you failed to note the mention in Sue Dremann's story that Expedia already offered Nikil a job on the strength of what he did here.

And he didn't 'hack' anything, if by 'hack' you mean do something malicious. He simply violated the terms and conditions under which Southwest offers its web site for customer use.

@Hulkmania, as Nikil himself notes, it's not a matter of SWA corporately possessing a sense of humor. It's that they offer a service somewhat similar to Nikil's, but they offer it only to paying customers.

Naturally, they would be loath to allow free alternatives to their paid-for service.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2012 at 8:13 pm

@Sharon, you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. So why talk at all?

Nikil isn't a hacker in the antiquated sense of the term that you're familiar with... he merely exposed a flaw in Southwest's system that allowed people to check-in exactly 24 hours before a flight. Is that malicious? Southwest didn't lose a dollar on this, but it does violate their T&C and that's why they have the right to shut it down.

The coolest part of this is that Nikil built this powerful tool in less time than it takes the average American to watch Dancing With the Stars... So let's applaud our hacker friends instead of cursing them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jan H.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2012 at 9:28 pm

I find it rather amusing, personally. Such things are bound to happen eventually. Some brilliant hacker is bound to figure a way around all the "preventive measures".

It wasn't malicious, but it was illegal, and the problem has been taken care of as far as SWA is concerned.

Chill out and see the humor in it.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm

" It wasn't malicious, but it was illegal"

That is exactly the reason that Nikil Viswanathan has just ended his career prospects

All senior Hi Tech executives need high security clearances

Nikil Viswanathan will never get such clearences


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nikil
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Thanks for the support everyone! I wanted to make a few facts clear.

1. I literally built this for myself and didn't think that anyone else would want to use it.

2. I didn't realize that it was against Southwest's Terms of Service when I built this.

3. This actually doesn't compete with anything they offer. Their early bird checkin is $10 and checks you in 36 Hours ahead of time while normal check in only opens to the public at 24 hours ahead of time (which is when checkintomyflight.com) checks you in.

Thanks again for everything!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 23, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Yes, he is clearly very clever. But why reward him for creating something that plays fast and loose with a company's policy, especially if they lose money as a result? It's interesting that he is mostly lauded here. (And yes, I have a sense humor.)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm

I don't believe for a minute that this guy has limited his career prospects. He's someone who makes things that people apparently want. That's what I call marketable.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nikil
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 23, 2012 at 11:28 pm

@Jeff - thanks! I wanted to explain a bit about how this works. So it actually doesn't exploit a flaw in Southwest's website or checkin system.

Think about when you wash dishes. You could scrub them by hand or you could ask a machine (we call it a a dishwasher) to scrub them for you. Similarly, what checkintomyflight.com does is

1. opens up a web browser
2. goes to www.southwest.com
3. fills in the checkin forms as if you were doing it

Its definitely not "hacking" in the "write malicious code" sense (which would be very hard to do) and its more of "hacking" in the "oh look I can make a computer automate a routine task for me" sense (which is what they were explicitly designed to do).

Thanks!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jeff
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm

@Sharon, I assume you would have advised a young Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak to not tinker around with and sell their blue boxes?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 24, 2012 at 12:06 am

Nice explanation and analogy Nikil. Some people are just unclear on the concept of automation. In the old days I tied a string to a wind-up alarm clock that flipped on my light switch in the morning. The electric power company did not issue a cease and desist order then, and the hack did not limit my career options. It did get me to school on time, an unfair advantage the results of which I still exploit to this day.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Viswanathan Fan
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 12:44 am

Couldn't this be converted from a site and made into an app? By creating an app you would seemingly not be violating the SW terms of service (i am not a lawyer).

When an app user makes their reservation they activate the app, then the app does the rest - it is then the individual customer who is checking them self in.

Shaky legal ground to sell an app, but OK to do a one-off for yourself(?): TOS = "in connection with offering any third party product"


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Nice Job
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:06 am

No point in trying to work around the TOS - if they don't like what you are doing, they'll just change them. Perfectly legitimate in my view.

But kudos for putting together a useful service. Not everybody can, and there's a lot of value creation in that capability.

"Hacking is very a serious matter these days"

He might not get a job with IBM, not sure; not sure he would want one ;-) There are plenty of jobs for resourceful software engineers.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Cy D. Fect
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:34 am

Also note "hacking" does not necessarily carry a negative connotation. The Unix- and DIY-hardware hobbyist community contains many self-proclaimed "hackers", where the term basically means people who like to build cool stuff. "Hobbyist Software/Electrical Engineer" is a boring term and implies formal education, when the "hacker" community is informal and fun.

Another meaning for "hack" is a small, clever piece of software usually written for fun and in a short period of time that does something cool usually by putting together several different pieces of software or services that weren't originally intended to work with each other, such as a music-based Twitter-integrated 3D arcade shooter that runs in the browser that is controlled using two Kinects and a Wiimote, or something more mundane like a website that automatically schedules a check-in. Point being that it builds some sort of unintended, cool or useful functionality around other already existing services and software.

A "hack" in terms of software can also mean a quick and dirty solution to a problem that isn't very pretty to look at and might be unstable, but solves it nontheless. It can be a clever bit of bizzare pointer voodoo that makes something work faster than the conventional way of doing things, or an ugly 2000 line monstrosity of a function written at 3AM with the power of caffeine to meet a deadline that makes absolutely no sense but just seems to work anyway.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Abhik Lahiri
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:42 am

OMG, I just couldn't stop myself LMAO reading a few of these comments.
Firstly, I know this guy pretty well (yay!!!.... Nikil, you owe me a Jamba Juice treat when you make your first billion :) ), and he definitely didn't write and malicious code or "hack into" any system, break any system's security or breach any cyber law!! The term hacking is usually referred to building a computer application to do some cool task (like automating filling out web forms in this case... it's actually a pretty straightforward client-side script, especially when you know the structure of the form, and you don't break any network security here).
Secondly, to all those guys who are concerned about him limiting his job prospects (like in IBM.... who would want to work there anyways? :P), didn't anyone read he already turned down offers from Facebook and Expedia???? Companies love people who can build stuff.... this guy can get any software dev job in the valley in the blonk of an eye (and from what I remember, he had tons of offers upon graduation).
Maybe, rather than being concerned about the consequence of what Nikil did, people should really think about sending him their resume to work in his new startup?? just saying... you never know, you could just make your fortune working with Nikil :)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by coolbeans
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2012 at 2:17 am

Cool stuff. Look forward too seeing more of this guy in Tech. News.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 24, 2012 at 3:12 am

@Abhik, great suggestion about sending resumes. I'm thinking of getting in line with the angel investors!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Now boarding group H
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 8:22 am

I wish I knew this exited when I was in Vegas. I have no smartphone, no laptop, no tablet, none of that stuff. What I did have was a tight schedule, with no time to wait at the hotel service booth, paying someone $$ to access SW site for boarding number.

Nikil came up with this idea, worked on the program for a very short time, made it work. Now, just think what he can do with just a little more time.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by LaNell Mimmack
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2012 at 10:47 am

I knew something was haywire when I clicked into the Southwest site this month trying to be first and got B32. I knew something was up!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by really?
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2012 at 11:54 am

Of course Southwest should not allow this entitled Stanford Grad to change the rules to benefit himself. I am sure the "kid" is brilliant. I really hope he can put all of his smarts into something productive. [Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 24, 2012 at 12:04 pm

Why is it that certain "adults" have to immediately assume that any kid from Stanford, Paly or Gunn is "entitled" whenever they do something that doesn't necessarily fit into local laws or an issue such as this.

You don't know the kid, you don't know his family. Yet you assume he is entitled/spoiled.

Book. Cover. Enough said.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Emily Porterfield
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Why are so many giving this brilliant young man such a hard time? First, he found a creative solution to his forgetfulness issue. Isn't creativity a valued trait in the software world? He did not know it was a violation of Southwest's policies and now that he does, he won't be doing it again. I would think there are many companies that would want to hire him. I do think it was about time his Mom stopped enabling him....Even geniuses need to be able to take care of themselves, although their brains are 36,000 ft in the air! Nikil, we need more creative thinkers like you. But how in the world did you ever remember to get to class on time? :=)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Felicity
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Gee, I just create a calendar alert on my iPhone for my flight with 24 hour notice - to check-in - and 90 minutes to leave for the airport. Of course, I have my phone with me so I can do it from anywhere. I am not be able to program and I am forgetful so I used the tools that I have;-). What I don't understand is why he created a website as supposed to a simple script and how lots of people found his website? That is the part that doesn't sound like 'an accident'.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Felicity
a resident of Los Altos
on Oct 24, 2012 at 3:11 pm

I should add SW has an iPhone app so after creating the calendar alert, go to the app and check in. It really is that simple.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by businessdecision
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 3:30 pm

The divide: if you are smarter or richer or own things others can't afford (or don't want to own), you clean up in a way you never could before. From me, thumbs down. There's enough inequality without this.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by really?
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Crescent Park Dad, the word entitled is defined as "to furnish with a right or claim to something" Please let me explain.

Southwest does have a way for you to have yourself automatically checked in. It is called
Earlybird. You simply go on-line to the Southwest website, pay $10, and you are automatically checked in 24 hours before your flight. No need for your mom to worry.

This very bright young man, thought he was entitled to automatically
check himself in with his own app for free. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online.]

I graduated from Gunn, have kids here in school & have lived in Palo Alto for 50 years.
Some people here feel entitled, and this is an excellent example of that.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Local parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 24, 2012 at 4:04 pm

If we all read the Terms for every site, software, and business we used, we'd be better prepared, but we wouldn't have any time to live life. I heard on NPR that someone did a study that just the EULA's people come across in ordinary life would take a person over a year of time to actually read.

He took down the site when asked. It violated the agreement, which is a contract violation, not a violation of law, as far as I can tell. (So, not illegal.) Until businesses start using templates for agreements and simply note how theirs is different (hopefully in short enough lines that they can be eyeballed), it's unreasonable to expect people to know what's in those terms -- most companies design their terms just so people don't know (gotcha...)

Lighten up people. Good luck with your future work, Nikil. (I have a philanthropic website, can I have 45 minutes' help with it?)


 +   Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Anyone who believes this guy has ended his career prospects needs to have their head examined.

He has incredible talent.
He did not intend anything malicious.

I would hire him in a heartbeat.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Abhik Lahiri
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 24, 2012 at 4:58 pm

@Felicity - I'll tell you why just writing a simple script wouldn't solve Nikil's problem of him forgetting to check in early.

It's simple... sane people usually code scripts on a desktop/laptop and run it on them (never heard of someone coding anything on a smartphone or tablet :P), and the script lives on the local disk (obviously). Now, fast-forward to sometime in the future, where he's booking a SW flight, and he's probably traveling or busy with some work, so quickly books it and can't access the machine where the script is immediately. He'll lose out on that precious A-list seat because he couldn't "tell" the script his flight information that moment (and will definitely forget it later, because he's too busy or something)!! Solution - code up a simple webpage that runs the script (I bet it was in JS) and host it on a server so that it can be accessed from any device (even a mobile), and input the flight info while booking the flight (it's in your mind at that moment), and feel relaxed about the whole issue because you know you're getting a good seat on the flight :) That's exactly what Nikil did.

Also, if putting simple reminders on his phone would work, he really wouldn't call himself "forgetful"... coz, these days that's exactly what normal unforgetful people do.

Smart people, especially students at Stanford, are so overburdened with work, that they just don't have the time to take care of these mundane issue... they'd rather free up that time to work on something exciting, and make this world a better place for you and I to live in (there was someone back in the day like Nikil, who built stuff that allows you to put in your gibberish comment in the first place!). So, they come up with creative ideas to deal with this problem.

I guess, I just ended up rephrasing everything that's there in the original article... but, it seems like people still wondered why Nikil built the website! .... I am just amazed at these comments!!


 +   Like this comment
Posted by really?
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Hey Local Parent, check out what Abhik Lahiri says,

"Smart people, especially students at Stanford, are so overburdened with work, that they just don't have the time to take care of these mundane issue... they'd rather free up that time to work on something exciting, and make this world a better place for you and I to live in (there was someone back in the day like Nikil, who built stuff that allows you to put in your gibberish comment in the first place!). So, they come up with creative ideas to deal with this problem."

What do you think? Any entitlement issues around here?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Eric P
a resident of another community
on Oct 24, 2012 at 6:48 pm

I'm actually the second passenger to use the site after it launched. Nikil emailed me directly and seemed genuinely suprised that I'd found his site (I live on the east coast). He asked about my experience and whether I had any problems. The site worked precisely as advertised, and I shared my experience. Nikil replied and thanked me for taking the time to respond to his email and for using his new site.

Bottom line: In addition to being an incredible talent, Nikil is a humble gentleman. I wish him the best and look forward to investing in his future comany.
-ep


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Good to see Stanford is still churning out creative innovators like Nikil. This was a small little project for him, but its indicative of the mindset that will see him have a very successful career.

People who would call this guy entitled are small-minded takers who will be counting on people just like him to create value in the economy to support themselves and our giant, inefficient public sector bureaucracy.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by really?
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 24, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Hello Citizen,

Small-minded taker here.
At least I won't ask for your comment to be removed! I wonder what the difference is between
me and the person that had my comments removed. Hmmm what is the word. Does it start with an e? No hard feeling everyone. Use your brilliance to help make the world a better place.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 25, 2012 at 12:19 am

really? The basis for your "entitlement" argument is that this guy's not having to pay $10 to automatically check himself in. But you're working with incorrect information.

The EarlyBirds, who pay $10, are checked in 36 hours in advance -- not 24 hours.

When he (or his website) checks in at 24 hours, for free, it's along with all the other regular ticket holders, who are checking in for free.

Bottom line: He's not getting a $10 free ride. Ergo, not entitled.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Partially smart
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 25, 2012 at 12:58 am

A sense of entitlement is a personality characteristic, not a matter of getting or not getting $10.
He certainly does have it, for example the company is not punishing him, the just want him to Cease and Desist. But he still wonders whether he can fulfill the requests he has received. Not so smart after all.
And sending a brief email to a long list of people is a trivial task.
Being smart has lots of dimensions. Like a lot of programmers, he has some of them but is missing some common sense.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm

"He is not the first person to be threatened by Southwest for offering automatic check-in services that get travelers A-list boarding passes," reads the third paragraph of this story.

I overlooked this point earlier. So CheckInToMyFlight.com was a concept that already had occurred to others, a TOC violation of a similar format that already had been challenged on similar grounds:

Web Link (Southwest v. MySouthwestCheckin.com, Filed 02/27/12)

The lesson here is the importance of "due diligence", which catches up with anybody who tries to be innovative and then releases their creation into the real world. People may regard this as unfortunate or even spirit-crushing, but it's just a fact of competitiveness in the marketplace that mutually agreed upon (i.e. legally enforceable) boundaries exist. We are surrounded by examples of individuals and new ventures that have successfully navigated these obstacles, so don't lose hope for the little guy who try, try, tries again. We can all benefit when we applaud and encourage them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by RW
a resident of another community
on Oct 26, 2012 at 8:27 am

Why such an obviously brilliant guy has to be reminded by his mom to check-in for a flight is beyond me.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Ducatigirl
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Ducatigirl is a registered user.

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Jay
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2012 at 8:49 pm

I don't see anything wrong with Nikil's site and what it offered. The original
SW online check-in system gave computer owners and people with an
Internet connection at home (few libraries are open at midnight) an
an edge over those who went to the airport to get a boarding pass.
Nikil just made the online check in easier.

What is the inherent virtue in staying up and being adept with a mouse-keyboard? How is this different from a program that reminds you to check in?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by some guy
a resident of another community
on Oct 29, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Brilliant? Anything that you can type into a computer can easily be made into a program. You simply let the computer do the typing, which they are very good at. I'm surprised it took 45 minutes.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by some smarter guy
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Early Decision Blues
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 0 comments | 2,252 views

One night only: ‘Occupy the Farm’ screening in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 2,137 views

First Interview
By Sally Torbey | 10 comments | 1,388 views

Death with Dignity
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,335 views

Guest Post #2 from HSSV: Labradoodle Back on His Feet
By Cathy Kirkman | 2 comments | 419 views