Longform

Geeks Gone Wild!

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For his part, Rusty solicits wireless-spotting data from wardrivers all over the state and keeps a running tab -- along with precise, GPS-generated maps -- on his Web site (Google "Wardriving Arizona" and you'll find it). Recently, Chiles was the organizer of the Phoenix leg of July's international Worldwide Wardrive, the third event of its kind to draw mobile hackers from seven different countries to find and map the wireless access points available in their cities. Around the Phoenix area, Chiles and the other local wardrivers who signed up on his Web site discovered some 8,844 access points, two-thirds of which were "wide open," according to Chiles.

Slipnode, a computer security evangelist who hosts his own weekly Web talk show with other IT buddies on his site, Slipnet.com, considers wardriving an "informational thing" and believes he's providing a valuable service to the vast Internet for Dummies crowd, basically letting them know when their digital fly is unzipped. "If everyone knew what we knew, they'd be better able to secure their network," Slipnode says. "There's a lot to learn and use in the real world from people who are wardrivers."

Still, judging from their needlessly paranoid behavior and their pattern of revealing even the most banal information as if they're sharing precious government secrets ("I guess we can say this," they continually check each other), it's clear Chiles and Slipnode are enjoying the "bad boy" image seldom applied to meticulous geeks like themselves.

All night long, the slightly guarded Chiles, in long red sideburns and a gray "Chicks Dig Unix" tee shirt, and his buddy Slipnode, an intense, serious-minded twentysomething who refuses to give his real name (but insists on using his nickname "for the fame"), have been cruising around Mill, pointing out all the open wireless networks they can detect with their IBM Thinkpad and the three antennas attached to Chiles' Altima. "I put the omnidirectional on the roof, because that draws signals from all directions," Chiles explains at the start of the ride, "and I put the two directionals on the sides, so I can get signals that are way far away."

With such a setup, Chiles says, he can detect the presence of literally thousands of open access points all around Phoenix -- running usually without even the simplest privacy protection in place. The same technically challenged consumers whose VCRs are still blinking "12:00" are now snatching up inexpensive Wi-Fi boxes and unknowingly broadcasting all their e-mail messages and private downloads to anyone within a 300 to 1,000-foot radius who happens to be carrying a Wi-Fi-equipped laptop or PDA.

If one wanted to, Chiles and Slipnode confide, one could wreak any amount of havoc on the computers sitting around out there with their virtual front doors unlocked.

"With a setup like this, technically it would be possible for any kind of data to be intercepted," Chiles confesses. "Simple packet-sniffing software could catch chunks of data that are being transmitted, and it would be possible to reconstruct all the data that was in the air -- credit card info, personal records, whatever."

A tech-savvy terrorist could even hop on someone else's wireless network to hack into government computers and launch a virus without leaving a trace of his location -- a possibility the FBI takes very seriously. "We know that an attack could bring down the network of this country very quickly," warned Daniel Devasirvatham of the feds' Homeland Security Task Force at an industry conference last December. "Once you're on the network, it doesn't matter where you got in."



Not that Chiles and Slipnode would ever engage in such nefarious activities themselves, of course. "There's a super fine line between having the knowledge to do something and actually doing it," Slipnode says. Most guys who wardrive get off on the power trip of imagining all the havoc they could create but are too smart -- or possibly just too nerdy -- to actually carry out their scheme of world domination.

"It's a real feeling of power, just having all that knowledge," Chiles says.

"But all you have to do is use it," Slipnode adds, "and then you've crossed that line, between expert and criminal."

"And nobody in the wardriving community," Chiles agrees, "wants to push those buttons."




Perhaps that's why, even with all the possibilities for mischief opened up by wireless devices, we've yet to see a single bank system crumble, or witness the global information infrastructure shut down or find a single CIA e-mail deliberately get misrouted to the Taliban.

"The interesting thing is, there have been no news reports yet of any malicious attacks launched over a wireless system," says Chris Hurley, a.k.a. Router, a Washington, D.C.-based information security engineer who presented a speech titled "Myths, Misconceptions, the Truth and the Future of Wardriving" at the DefCon 11 hacker's convention held earlier this month in Las Vegas. "I mean, have you even heard of one incident where an attack was launched from a home user's wireless access point against the government, against commercial business? Against anybody? I haven't heard of one case where that's been proven."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern