Geeks Gone Wild!

Wardriving hackers take the revenge of the nerds to the street

"We were a lot cooler before the dot-com bust, back when we were making all the money!" he chuckles. "Until a couple of years ago, the job market for tech people was just amazing. I got good, high-paying, high-level jobs very quickly -- sometimes a little too quickly for my own comfort, in fact. But it was good.

"Now, companies know that tech people are desperate for jobs, so they're able to hire highly skilled people really cheap. Last year, when I took the job where I currently work, I was hired on at literally half of what I was making two years ago. That hurts."

To keep self-esteem up, Gentleman says, a lot of techies have taken to exerting their identity, or "letting their geek show," by wearing the exclusionist tee shirts (Dan's favorite reads, "There are only 10 types of people in the world: Those who understand binary, and those who don't") and engaging in relatively adventurous activities like wardriving.

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 think it's more about flexing your creative muscle, and also just fighting boredom," he says. "The boredom comes from the fact that we used to be the people to be. Now we're scraping, just as everyone else is. We need something to do, but we don't have the money we used to have. So we'll take the gear we have lying around the house and have some fun with it."

Gentleman's wardriving setup is a particularly creative concoction: a Linux-equipped handmade computer compressed into a Hot Topic briefcase. "All together, this cost me about $500 to make," he says proudly. "I couldn't get a decent laptop for that price."

Like most wardrivers, Gentleman insists he just uses his elaborate mobile computer to detect the wireless access points he drives by without trying anything mischievous, like connecting to an open network and poking around. "But then," he adds with a wink, "you're not gonna find anybody who's going to admit to it. Even among the community of wardrivers, and even among the old-school hackers who tinker with computers and make them do inventive things, they never talk about it. If anyone has the ability to do illicit deeds from time to time, they don't admit to it anymore. The public consciousness is so high, no one wants to cop to being on the dark side of the Force. But I would say if I was hanging out with 50 wardrivers, chances are a good 10 of them hop on other people's networks and capture packets now and then."

It's a scary thought -- especially with all those disgruntled geeks out there still smarting from the hefty pay cuts following the dot-com fallout. With thousands of out-of-work computer guys driving around, sniffing out millions of open wireless networks, could the climate be ripe for a true Revenge of the Nerds?

"Oh, yeah!" Gentleman says without hesitation. "But it's probably not going to be the big mainframe-crippling disaster everyone fears. A good example was the recent case involving this guy they called the Spam King. He was the guy responsible for setting up the companies that send out about 50 percent of the spam messages people get in their e-mail. Made a lot of money with it. And there was a news story about how he just built himself a new $10 million home.

"Well, he got Slashdotted," Gentleman says, referring to the dominoing effect of getting written up on the influential tech Web site, "and the Slashdot community located the home, found a satellite picture of it, and started signing him up for hundreds of thousands of postal junk mail. This guy was getting so much junk snail-mail, it would arrive literally by the van-load, and they would drop it off in his yard!"

Gentleman laughs. "That's an example of a real revenge of the nerds," he says. "I mean, sure, it was harassing, and definitely on the line of legality. But it was funny! And that's what usually happens when the geek community gets mad. We like to have fun."

At 17, Paul Schminke of Globe is too young to remember when being a geek wasn't cool.

"For me, being a computer geek was never something that kept you out of the popularity circles," he says. "But from what I've seen in movies and listening to older people, I know that's the stereotype people used to have."

Still, for Schminke, wardriving is a kind of sport that sets him apart from the other sun-shunning computer lab habitants.

"It's definitely a cool thing to do," he says. "In my high school, the people who wardrive are like the ravers of the computer crowd. Like the clubbing kind of really cool people."

Young wardrivers are the ones even the older hackers fear, since they're less schooled in the arcane laws of code that burn a healthy fear of the FBI into the older DeVry grad, and since kids are generally more adventurous and less bound by the "moral code" old-school hackers always talk about.

"You're talking about a generation raised on illegal MP3 downloads and corporate ethics scandals like Enron," says Dan Gentleman. "Where's their ethical code?"

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