Geeks Gone Wild!

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"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?"

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.

"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."

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Jimmy Magahern
Contact: Jimmy Magahern