Adopting the old early 20th century hobo practice of using chalk marks to communicate with each other, modern day wi-fi enthusiasts warchalk their neighborhoods to let others know where publicly accessible wireless hotspots are located. The legal ramifications are unclear, but internet service providers and the government have taken notice and are not pleased.
Modern day technophiles are taking a cue from early 20th century hobos who rode the American rail system: using chalk markings to communicate with each other. Although hobos are more likely to converse via email and cell phones these days, hobos back then passed on useful information to fellow travelers via a series of codes and symbols. On the houses of police officers and judges they would draw pictographs that warned others to stay away; on those of doctors providing free medical care and kind old ladies who cooked hot meals in exchange for hearing a sob story or two were symbols that served as beacons for weary boxcar riders. These days, you are less likely to see chalk marks signifying “good campsite” or “ill-tempered man with gun lives nearby” than symbols identifying publicly accessible wi-fi hotspots, or in techno-speak, 802.11x wireless access points. The recent boom of wireless networking, both in the office and at home, coupled with lax security practices, has dramatically increased the number of access points where anyone with a wi-fi compatible laptop or PDA can jump online and surf the Web. Along with this increase have come complex and unforeseen legal issues regarding the right to share, often without consent, a person’s wireless internet connection.
The name for the practice of finding wi-fi hotspots comes from the 1983 movie War Games where a teenage Matthew Broderick hacked into military computers at NORAD by wardialing random phone numbers using a modem. The terms nowadays are wardriving, warwalking, and warflying-each variation reflecting the means of conveyance by which warchalkers search out, find, and mark down publicly accessible hotspots. These warchalkers, armed with laptops and wireless network cards, cruise city streets in hope of stumbling across open, insecure networks. Once they find a network, they use chalk to mark the location of the hotspot as well as the network type, name, and bandwidth. Despite being such a new phenomenon, the set of symbols has already become well-settled. What is not settled is the legality of warchalking. Several legal concerns have arisen with respect to the sharing, some would say stealing, of wireless network bandwidth.
First, there is the issue of authorized use: Can owners of wireless networks legally share their bandwidth with the public at large? Can people warchalk their own home or sidewalk, thus, notifying neighbors and passerbys of the existence of their network and inviting its use? Warchalking advocates stress that individuals should be able share their networks just as a homeowner should be allowed to share the water from their hose if they so choose. They claim that warchalking sidewalks is no more illegal than kids drawing hopscotch squares. Some cities have even implemented and warchalked their own wi-fi networks as a way to attract business and boost patronage of restaurants, cafes, and other public locations. Internet service providers, however, strongly oppose the rampant sharing of wi-fi networks. They point to the fact that the vast majority of their broadband customers, at least in the United States, pay a fixed monthly price for unlimited use. Since people do not pay measured, per unit rates for internet access as they do for other utilities such as gas, water, and electricity, service providers argue that when customers share their wireless networks, the providers lose out on revenue.
Second, there is the issue of unauthorized use: Are people legally permitted to warchalk someone else’s network without them knowing, thus, encouraging others to surreptitiously use that network owner’s bandwidth? The arguments on each side are similar to those in the case of authorized use, except here, there is the question of theft and the rights of the unaware owner. Service providers, in thinking about their bottom lines, often argue on behalf of unsuspecting and oftentimes technologically naïve network owners. They claim that by identifying other people’s networks, warchalkers encourage the theft of valuable network bandwidth. Warchalkers respond that the bandwidth used is typically small compared to that available, that only in rare cases would an owner notice a performance decrease, and that even if owners did know, most would either gladly share their connections or simply take the few easy steps required to secure their networks. But providers point out that the majority of wi-fi hardware defaults to “open” so that wi-fi newbies have an easier time getting up and running. Rarely do owners bother or possess the know-how to secure their networks. Providers also emphasize that bandwidth is a valuable resource and that theft is theft. They claim that warchalking other people’s houses amounts to an invasion of privacy and encourages the hacking of networks, comparing warchalkers to robbers letting other robbers know which houses are unlocked.
Finally, the U.S. government has criticized the practice of warchalking and labeled it a threat to national security. With the post 9/11 rise in awareness regarding potential vulnerabilities in homeland security, the Pentagon has come to view open wi-fi networks as a liability, a tool that terrorists could exploit to wreak havoc on unprotected networks and information systems. Warchalking, they argue, only serves to aggravate the problem by advertising those vulnerabilities. But warchalkers claim the government grossly overstates the threat and point to the myriad ways of securing networks that people and offices can take in order to close their networks from prying eyes.
As of this writing, none of these legal issues have been addressed by the courts or legislatures. There are no cases pending nor laws directed specifically at warchalkers. Only time will tell if the practice of warchalking survives.
Warchalking.org Legality FAQ (http://www.warchalking.org/story/2002/9/22/223831/236)
Worldwide Wardrive (http://www.worldwidewardrive.org/)
News.com – Insecurity of Wi-Fi Networks (http://news.com.com/2009-1033-982324.html)
News.com – Growth of Public Wi-Fi Networks (http://news.com.com/2009-1033-982322.html)
Slack Action (http://www.slackaction.com/signroll.htm)