Geeks Gone Wild!

Wardriving hackers take the revenge of the nerds to the street

Amazingly, even though posting his discovery to a Web site only opened up the vulnerability to countless other geeks, not a single incident of customer credit card misuse has been reported since the hole was made public last May.

It may be that the very type of person who's able to pluck endless streams of numbers and characters out of the air and somehow make a credit card out of the data is just too smart to do something that will send the Department of Homeland Security looking for their homemade antenna. "Anyone who's bright enough to go out and figure this stuff out is not likely to do anything bad with it," says Lloyd Tabb, a 40-year-old former Silicon Valley software engineer who admits a love for wardriving, too.

There's also a code of honor and a sort of class system among hackers that brands anyone who commits a reckless act an immature "script kiddie" -- an indignity no self-respecting wardriver wants to suffer.

Mark Poutenis
Like a shy Rusty Chiles, most wardrivers are mild-mannered guys enjoying their new dangerous image.
Emily Piraino
Like a shy Rusty Chiles, most wardrivers are mild-mannered guys enjoying their new dangerous image.

"I get e-mails all the time from kids wanting to know of any juicy open networks they can hack into," says Chiles. "I just tell them, Hey, I'm not gonna help you get into anything like that, and if you keep bugging me, I'm gonna post your IP address and make fun of you on my site!'"

Of course, it may also be that the guys who get into wardriving are, deep down, too inherently nerdy to engage in any activities that might cause Mom to want to disown them. There may be a certain bullying chromosome missing that prevents them from committing any of the nefarious computer crimes they're capable of.

Essentially, wardrivers are mild-mannered guys enjoying their new dangerous image. Slipnode, for example, wears a black tee shirt emblazoned with the letters "STFU" in bold white type. Typical of the cryptic tee shirts favored by the geek community, the letters are an IRC chat room acronym for a curse phrase that only translates if you're nerdy enough to Google the letters for a definition. When asked what the code means, Slipnode looks down and mutters quietly, "Shut The F Up," before tacking on a quick, "Sorry!"

Jen Frasier, creative director for the ThinkGeek Web-based apparel store, where the majority of tech types get their clever shirts and coffee mugs, notes that the "STFU" shirts -- as well as the popular "WTF," "RTFM" and "FSCK IT!" (the latter refering to a UNIX programming command that means "file system consistency check," but most non-geeks just think it's a misprint) -- fit into a geek culture where subtlety is prized over brazenness.

"A lot of it comes from the system admin world, where smart computer people are constantly fixing screw-ups by higher-level executives, and you want to say Read the f-ing manual!' but you can't," she observes. "So you just squeeze RTFM' somewhere into your diagnosis. It comes from the geek discipline of not wanting to be overtly rude to the moron you're trying to help, but still getting your message across -- if the moron is actually smart enough to figure it out!"

Like the Mafia or inner-city gang culture, geeks usually only get tough with their own. "Geeks like pointing out other geeks' screw-ups, and that's usually how a wardriver sees an unsecured network," says Hurley. "But the average home user shouldn't be worrying that terrorists are driving around their neighborhood looking for their Linksys access point. That's not what we're about."

Daniel Gentleman orders an iced cappuccino at the Java Fusion coffee house in northeast Phoenix and immediately notices a pair of 13-year-old twin boys carrying matching PDAs and wearing familiar-looking ThinkGeek tee shirts.

"We shop at the same store!" says the 27-year-old Web site security engineer, playfully high-fiving the tech-obsessed eighth graders. With his shaved head offset by a considerable paunch, Gentleman ("It's the 32,000th least-common name -- I looked it up!") resembles more of a digital-age Curly Howard than a club-chic Moby.

Still, the openly geeky UNIX systems administrator, who works the graveyard shift for a Web-hosting firm, comes in holding hands with a hot-looking "sweetie," as he calls her, who clearly loves the sharp-witted techie for his mind.

"I never fell for that negative connotation some women have about nerds," says Karen Reed, a children's librarian for the City of Glendale. "I find what he's able to do with computers amazing. I wouldn't go out with somebody who wasn't smart."

Gentleman, who advises the 13-year-olds to keep working their geekiness to their advantage ("See? Chicks dig smart guys!"), admits he's even taken his handheld PDA along with him to bars to help him pick up girls. "I've never had a girl hit on me because she thought I had a cool PDA," he says, laughing. "But I have been sitting at a bar with a handheld and had some women show interest in me. It kind of weeds out the shallow, unintelligent people you'd want to avoid anyway."

Gentleman smiles, leans over and gives Karen an affectionate kiss. Surely being a nerd is not the social curse it used to be back in Jerry Lewis' or even Steve Urkel's day. But Gentleman says things used to be even better for his ilk a couple of years ago.

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