Geeks Gone Wild!

Wardriving hackers take the revenge of the nerds to the street

Experienced hackers also complain that wardriving makes it too easy for even a non-computer whiz -- and therefore, a non-geek -- to play around in the same sandbox they've been maintaining for years.

"You don't need sharp hacker skills to get into wardriving," says 21-year-old Jason Holt, who wardrives around Tucson. "All you need is a laptop running Windows and a program called NetStumbler, and you're in."

Even the largely homemade gear used by wardrivers -- once a point of pride for the creator, in the way a car customizer loves to showcase his rebuilt Chevy -- is changing.

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.

"It used to be fun to get together with other wardrivers and show off gear and configure custom software for each other's machines," laments the already nostalgic Holt. "But now it's actually moved away from the home-built stuff, with all the connectors and wires. Now it's a whole lot easier to have the latest laptop and a magnetic-mounted antenna on the roof, as opposed to the driver hanging out the car at 60 miles per hour with a Yuban can," he says, laughing. "It's a whole lot easier, but it's not as interesting or fun to show off."

Some young wardrivers get by without even that much. "I just have my Apple iBook and the built-in antenna," Schminke says. "I don't have a GPS and I don't map everything. I just like to drive around and see what's open."

Occasionally, he admits, he's ignored the first rule of wardriving and connected to an open network just to access the Internet. "One time my newspaper class and my media class took a field trip to Portland," he recalls. "And we were there for a week. Well, I'm one of those people who have to have my computer, so finally I walked around with a couple of friends and my iBook, and we found a network."

Schminke admits to brief twinges of guilt. "It felt kind of wrong, because the network we found was coming from a church community center," he says, grimacing. "But they had a couple of open networks, so we were sitting there on the curb, checking our e-mail and stuff."

Like a lot of idealistic teens (and Wired magazine writers), Schminke envisions a day when the budding wardriver can drive down any street and stay connected to the Internet wherever he goes.

"Myself, I have a network connection that I share with a couple of friends who live, like, a mile or so away," he says. "And I can do that because I have a lot more powerful access point than what most people have. I have a big outdoor unit that's basically what a wireless ISP would use. If somebody does want to use it, I say, Go ahead.' Because I have extra bandwidth, plus I know it's secured from the rest of my network."

Such generosity is rare among home wireless users, not to mention the profit-minded "hot spot" access providers whose services are offered at such high-traffic stops as Starbucks, Circle K and, soon, McDonald's. "I have come across some networks you can tell are deliberately open," says Holt. "The most obvious one was when a network name came up as Wardrivers Welcome,'" he says, laughing.

But most wireless network users are fiercely guarded when it comes to their precious high-speed Internet access.

"For one thing, a lot of people feel they're paying for it, and you're just freeloading," says Dan Gentleman. "But mostly, they're just worried about people rummaging through their stuff."

Gentleman says he schools younger wardrivers on the endangered hacker ethic by comparing connecting on a network to a parent searching a teen's room while he's out of the house.

"I mean, think about it. That's your stuff!" he says, focusing on the 13-year-olds at Java Fusion -- one who's already sporting a "Wardriver" tee shirt when his only vehicle is a Razor scooter.

"Do you really want somebody else looking through it, just because they can?" he adds, before hitting on the ultimate uncool comparison. "I mean, who wants to act like a nosy parent?"

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