Longform

Geeks Gone Wild!

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Indeed, the most calamitous incident anyone has reported so far concerned a guy who had just bought a wireless card for his laptop at a Best Buy in Minneapolis and discovered that he was able to see packets of network data that included customer credit card information leaking out from the sales terminals connected to the store's wireless network. While the parking-lot hacker easily could have used his discovery to run up hefty bills on thousands of credit cards (the same vulnerability was later found at more of the chain's 1,900 stores before Best Buy quickly remedied the situation), he chose instead to post an anonymous message on Security Focus Online, a popular Web site for security management types, alerting Best Buy to wake up and smell the Wi-Fi. "I am NOT comfortable using my credit card at any Best Buy right now," he declared.

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.

"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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern