When does wardriving cross the double line?

I was a teenage wardriver. If I were to make a movie about the events of last week, that's what I'd call it.

When does wardriving cross the double line?
I was a teenage wardriver. If I were to make a movie about the events of last week, that's what I'd call it. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

The term wardriving isn't as nefarious as it sounds. Basically, wardriving means hopping in your car and scanning for open wireless networks from the road. All you need is a vehicle and a laptop or PDA with wireless networking. Throw in a free download that can detect wireless LANs, and you can clock any wireless network you drive past. You get to see its name, operating channels, security settings -- even its location if you have a GPS receiver. How geeky is that?

Most people who go about wardriving think of themselves as freewheeling rebels. They drive along with heads full of James Dean, Easy Rider, and Kevin Mitnick. Their archnemeses -- imagine the deans of Animal House -- are the sniffy system administrators who think of wardriving as research for future acts of sabotage. The administrators' rationale is that if people know where networks are, they'll obviously attempt to hack them -- and no doubt some of them will try. The wardriver's retort, like that of the direct marketing association: gathering information is no crime.

But the focus of this column is Internet access -- how to get online and establish a presence once you're there. To me, wardriving seems like a useful activity. I'm often caught on the road and in need of a 10-minute online session. If just turning on a notebook and running some software can identify a source of free and available Internet access -- how can that be bad?

Well, ignorance of the law is no defense, so it could be very bad. Nobody's been arrested for "borrowing" Internet access yet, and I don't plan to be the first.

Once you've determined that your wardriving activity will be 100 percent legal, here's how to get hooked up: Get a wireless notebook and download NetStumbler, a free app that can spot wireless networks. You'll first have to disable your wireless Internet access so that NetStumbler can monopolise your wireless card. Then, start driving. In a suburban five-block jaunt, my driving companion (who will remain nameless to protect the not-so-innocent) clocked 40 access points before asking me to pull over. The list was incredible -- because only 8 of them had any kind of encryption turned on. That makes 32 wide-open access points in a few acres, including 8 in a local school and 1 in a firehouse.

Looking at the information NetStumbler recorded, I began to wonder why I was paying an ISP at all. All of these free sources of Internet access were lying at my feet. All I needed to do was quell my mounting sense that it somehow isn't right to take Internet access without asking or paying for it.

It was then that I realised the fellow in the passenger seat was already firing up Outlook to collect his e-mail.

We got into an argument about it right away. I thought that we could be arrested on the spot for stealing services from a private residence or a public building. The Teenage Wardriver thought that it was like watching a ball game from the roof of a nearby building -- sure, the team would like the price of your ticket, but if they really objected to freeloaders, they'd put up a higher wall to stop them.

Besides, he said, what could be wrong about piggybacking on a school's Internet access? You're paying for it anyway out of your taxes, and a couple of megabytes of traffic isn't going to rain financial ruin on anyone.

I wasn't convinced, so I drove off, which effectively pulled the plug on the proto-hacker in the passenger seat. If you can't win an argument, you can always drive away from it.

What's your take? Would you hop onto an open network for a quick Internet session? Or is that morally just like stealing? Or worse, is it legally just like stealing? Talkback to me below.