Is it a morally dubious illegal activity, or simply taking advantage of excess bandwidth? Warchalking, or making chalk marks on walls or pavements to indicate a wireless access point, has caused a media buzz over the past 12 months. Nick Langley asks whether warchalking has lived up to the hype
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There are parts of the world where trainspotters and planespotters are at risk of arrest because the locals cannot understand such quintessentially British preoccupations. Warchalking breaches a new frontier in such hobbies, in that even the British, by and large, do not understand it. Its practitioners are at risk not only from the police and private security organisations, but also from being attacked and having their possessions stolen while wandering alone at night.
Warchalking is the practice of making chalk marks on walls or pavements to indicate a wireless access point. The mark may be placed by the owner of the wireless network or the owner may know nothing about it. The wireless access point can be found using specialist software on a laptop or handheld device. If an open node is found, it can be used to access the internet or check e-mails.
The chalked symbols are supposedly based on those used by hobos during the depression in the US to indicate a household where food and shelter might be expected or one where the reception might be less generous.
Matt "Blackbelt" Jones, an information architect, created the warchalking symbols and posted them on the internet. But freelance writer Ben Hammersley had already come up with the idea of opening his network up to neighbours and passers-by, and it was Hammersley who chalked the first mark outside his house.
However, the buzz over warchalking, so loud last summer, died down before the end of the year. One website, www.warchalking.org, ran an obituary in January 2003 with the headline "How warchalking died". It was possibly a premature move, as the site was still receiving posts from new enthusiasts in June.
Warchalking might have provided an opportunity for some people to get out more, but few seem to have taken it. When did you last see a warchalking mark? Have you ever seen one?
The New York Times made warchalking one of its "ideas of the year" and www.wired.com, www.slashdot.org and several other serial bibles of the zeitgeist made much of it. Some commentators saw it as the next step in the freedom of the internet. One or two said it was being talked up by the media for the benefit of their advertisers, paving the way for paid-for public Wi-Fi services and adding an edge to the otherwise mundane business of using your laptop to stay in touch with the office.
Warchalkers are, or were, driven by a variety of motives, among which getting free wireless access seems strangely unimportant. Finding open nodes is a hit-and-miss business. Nodes marked as open may no longer be open, particularly if the owner of the network has seen the mark and decided to lock out gatecrashers. Even if a node is open, it is often impossible to do anything with it without getting involved in illegal activities; uninvited network sharing being something of a legal grey area.
On a walk along the London Wall recorded on culture and politics website www.metamute.com, Matt Jones, one of the authors, found 20 nodes. Only one node was open but Jones was unable to access the internet from it.
For Jones, one pleasure of searching for open nodes is walking the streets looking at architecture. He confessed that warchalking is like trainspotting, with the names of access points replacing lists of serial numbers.
Others get pleasure simply from chalking. "I got back in the car, a mild rush flowing through me at having completed my first warchalk," said Ron Chrisley, research fellow in artificial intelligence at the University of Birmingham, after a night on the streets with some chalk and an iPaq. "I did not know where to go next; all I knew is that I wanted more. And an open node wouldn't hurt either."
Chrisley found other thrills. "Every few seconds or so I would look down at the Mini-stumbler [the software used for locating nodes] display between my legs - wardriving is dangerous! Especially when an open node pops up unexpectedly, as it did at this point."
For some the attraction is intellectual. "Warchalking to me is more a philosophy of connectivity and communication and not something I would actually do," said one comment on www.warchalking.org.
Another respondent wrote, "Sure, there was a lot of buzz around the concept, but how many people really do it? I have never, ever seen chalk marks out in the wild."
The site ran an online questionnaire to discover how many people had actually warchalked. Twenty eight per cent of the respondents were only interested in the theory of warchalking and had not warchalked themselves.
For those warchalkers that do mark out access points, some chalk the marks on pavements, assuming that while walls tend to be owned by somebody, the ground is a free public arena. The police will usually take a lenient view of what could be classed as pavement art, but scribbling on pavements, like spraying tags on walls, is actually criminal damage. Even though the chalk marks may be washed away with the rain, the marks are still covered by the term "temporary functional derangement", which sounds as though it could be applied to the perpetrators as well as their perpetrations.
Ethical justifications for warchalking include the peace-and-love stance, with warchalkers saying that they do not mind sharing their networks, so why can't others share their networks with them? Another attitude is the rather more boneheaded comparison where if you leave your door open and you are robbed, it is your fault for giving the thieves the opportunity.
"If people are so stupid they set up their wireless access points to be open, then it serves them right. The world is full of bad system administrators who need to be taught a lesson," said one cyberguerrilla.
One contributor on www.warchalking.org made the point that a lot of people have fixed- rate wireless broadband contracts, so a bit of freeloading on bandwidth they are not using will not be missed. Uninvited guests checking e-mail or looking at a few web pages is hardly going to stop owners enjoying the full benefit of their bandwidth. But others point out that some subscribers pay by the hour or by the byte, so they will get billed for alien traffic.
The majority opinion on www. warchalking.org is that using other people's bandwidth is ethically dodgy, and you should not take advantage of those who do not have the expertise to make their own networks secure.
Warchalking falls foul of at least two laws. Section 4 of the Theft Act 1968 says things that may be stolen include "money and all other property, real or personal, including things in action and other intangible property".
The Computer Misuse Act 1990 makes it an offence to gain unauthorised access to a computer system, punishable by six months in jail, a £2,000 fine or both, regardless of whether the motives are malicious or not.
Ironically, warchalkers themselves are at increased risk from street theft, as they wander around with laptops, often after dark. Chrisley has taken his iPaq onto the streets of Birmingham late at night, despite having been robbed three times and assaulted once in the previous nine months. Jones recalls warchalking in parts of New York where he felt uncomfortable carrying his laptop.
The fall in warchalking has been attributed to the rise in public wireless Lan services, either those that are paid for or laid on by coffee shop owners as an inducement to hang around and buy more muffins.
There is also a growing number of community wireless initiatives, providing free wireless broadband in towns and villages - particularly those the broadband providers have passed by.
But one comment on www.warchalking.com may give the real reason warchalking is dying. "I am afraid that warchalking is in danger of being washed away by the lack of active chalkers. Perhaps that is the ultimate test. Unless people are prepared to make a record of their netstumbling for the sake of others, warchalking will not last."
Community wireless sites:
Finding open nodes on the London Wall:
There are three main warchalking symbols:
- A circle indicates a closed wireless network
- A wireless network that been generously or inadvertently left open is denoted by two half-moons back to back
- A circle with a "W" in the middle indicates a Wired Equivalent Privacy encrypted node.
- Aerosol - Wardriving utility for Windows.
- Netstumbler - A Windows utility for 802.11b-based wireless network auditing. Used by warchalkers and wardrivers to find wireless access points. Available for most laptops and wireless cards, it can be downloaded from www.netstumbler.com. Netstumbling Walking about with your eyes glued to the Netstumbler display instead of looking where you are going. Warchalking Marking the sites of wireless access points with a special symbol.
- Wardialling - An early form of hacking involving dialling random numbers in the hope of finding a modem attached to a computer. Derived from the 1983 film War Games, the ultimate origin of the war prefix.
- Wardriving - Searching for wireless access points by driving around with Netstumbler on your laptop. Internet services firm KPMG found most wardriving takes place while people are driving to and from work and very little takes place at weekends. Warstorming Searching for wireless access points from a plane. Because of the limited range of wireless Lans, the plane has to fly below 1,500m. First recorded in Perth, Australia.
- Wapchalking - Variant of warchalking set up by the Wireless Access Point Sharing Community, an informal group with a code of conduct that forbids the use of access points without permission. The group uses the warchalking marks as an invitation to network owners to join their community. In Wapchalking terms, the two half-moon open node mark means a wireless access device is currently indicating factory default settings. "In our community's code, that means it is classified as a 'clueless' device," the group said.
Wardriving - Searching for wireless access points by driving around with Netslumber on your laptop. Internet services firm KPMG found most wardriving takes place while people are driving to and from work and very little takes place at weekends.
Warstorming: Searching for wireless access points from a plane. Because of the limited range of wireless Lans, the plane has to fly below 1,500m. First recorded in Perth, Australia.
Wapchalking - Variant of warchalking set up by the Wireless Access Point Sharing Community, an informal group with a code of conduct that forbids the use of access points without permission. The group uses the warchalking marks as an invitation to network owners to join their community. In Wapchalking terms, the two half-moon open node mark means a wireless access device is currently indicating factory default settings. "In our community's code, that means it is classified as a 'clueless' device," the group said.
A survey conducted by www.warchalking.com shows how few warchalkers actually go out and warchalk and how, despite the ethic of sharing networks, few had made their home networks open to all.
Have you warchalked yet? l
- Sure, I warchalked my house (7%)
- Sure, I warchalked my office (3%)
- Sure, I warchalked the secret government agency down the road (10%)
- Nah, I'm just interested in theoretical warchalking (28%)
- No, I do not know what warchalking is yet (18%)
- No, but I will as soon as I find some chalk (32%).
War on warchalking
The FBI in Pittsburgh sent a memo to local businesses warning them that the appearance of warchalking symbols outside their offices meant the security of their networks had been jeopardised
KPMG in London set up a honeypot, a dummy wireless access point containing monitoring software, which it used to gather survey data about wireless hacking as a marketing tool for its security services
AT&T Broadband sent out wardrivers of its own to track down open wireless access points and check if they were being shared against the terms of its contracts.