Geeks Gone Wild!

Rusty Chiles is halfway through executing a left turn on the corner of Seventh Street and Ash in Tempe when he and his buddy Slipnode, riding shotgun in Chiles' white Nissan Altima, experience a simultaneous "onosecond" -- cyberspeak for that split second in time between decision and consequence when you suddenly realize you've just done something terribly, terribly wrong.

For a couple of professional computer security geeks like Rusty and Slip, such "Oh, no!" seconds usually occur immediately after relatively picayune programmer mishaps like executing a data back-up with open documents in use, or hard-deleting a file that turns out to be a system goodie.

But this time, the error Chiles just committed may very well be fatal -- and not just in an IT specialist's sense of the word.

Rusty and Slipnode have taken a computer on a road trip, the central requirement of the hobby they like to call "wardriving" -- searching by antenna for vulnerable wireless networks -- and they've been checking the screen constantly instead of keeping their eyes on the road.

"It's cool just to take a computer along and have it beep' at you when you find another network," Chiles grins, attempting to explain the peculiar appeal of wardriving (its name derives from the old-school hacker activity of wardialing, the telephone exploit made famous in the 1983 Matthew Broderick nerd classic WarGames).

For guys who spend the majority of their waking hours hunched over computers in dingy office cubicles, wardriving may be the ultimate extreme sport. But the out-of-doors is not the geek's native habitat. And on the street, out in the real world, a crash is more than just something computers seem to do at the worst possible time.

Out the passenger side window, Rusty and Slipnode notice that a hefty blue Dodge Ram truck, running a yellow light, is about to live up to its name.

"Whoa!" Slipnode yells as Chiles guns the gas pedal just in time to successfully clear the Altima's rear end from the path of the oncoming Ram.

For the past 15 minutes, Chiles and Slipnode have been complaining about the negative image of wardrivers in the media; how the news paints every computer whiz with a Pringles-can antenna and a laptop as a nasty little identity pirate out to peek at Grandma's e-mail and raid corporate databases. "It's really more of a game," Chiles had said earlier, "where the object is just to find the most wireless access points. But rule number one is, you never connect."

Now even Chiles and Slipnode have to admit the avid wardriver does perhaps pose a certain menace to society.

"That's the real danger of wardriving," Chiles laughs through shortened breaths after slowing the car down and making a cautious right onto Mill Avenue. "Driving through the streets of Phoenix with a computer in your car!"

They're the Hells Angels of the information superhighway, the "drive-by hackers" and wireless wardrivers who are worrying us to death and making us all feel sorry we bought those nifty little $99 boxes that make it possible for us to surf the Net while on the toilet.

The explosion in sales for wireless access routers, little radio boxes that spread out a single high-speed Internet connection wirelessly all over the house or office, has become a phenomenon in the computer equipment industry. Already, more than three million households are estimated to have wireless networks, a number analysts predict will double this year and reach annual sales of 20 million by 2005.

We love how easy it is to get all the family computers on the Web and sharing a printer without having to snake a bunch of cables through the walls. But the notion that we're also sharing that connection with anyone passing by who knows a bit more about computers than we do is beginning to feel a little creepy -- a feeling only heightened by sensationalistic news stories.

"This man could steal your identity out of thin air just by driving down the street," began a recent special report on KCBS in Los Angeles. "Or steal your credit card information without ever touching your wallet!"

Chiles and Slipnode are fed up with that image, and want people to know most wardrivers are just harmless geeks who work long hours testing and fixing security vulnerabilities, or "holes," in computer networks and get a kick out of driving home from work and seeing how many other holes they can find.

"The main good-guy factor in wardriving is spreading the awareness of unprotected networks and closing up holes," says Chiles, relating the role of the wardriver to a benevolent Terminix man. "You can find excitement just discovering those open networks and pointing them out, without doing anything else."