Finding Holes In The Wireless Net

`War driving': Using laptops and antennae, avid techies are hitting the streets to pinpoint locations of Wi-Fi networks - and possibly to get a free ride online.

May 09, 2002|By Joel B. Obermayer | Joel B. Obermayer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It's 10 p.m. and three young guys from out-of-town are cruising the Inner Harbor in a flashy Ford F-150 Super Crew 4x4. In the next lane, a comely brunette with raspberry lipstick checks them out.

She's talking on a cell phone, but she's eyeing the guy in the passenger seat. She looks at him harder. She smiles and mouths a word: "geek."

The object of her stare never sees her. He's too busy pointing a cylindrical antenna nearly 3 feet long through the window. All he cares about is transmissions from wireless networks in the buildings they're cruising by.

For Brian Caswell, it's a great way to spend a Friday night. "It's voyeurism. I love to see what's out there," he says.

Caswell, 24, and his two buddies, Don Bailey, 27, and David Wilburn, 23, are endlessly fascinated by "Wi-Fi" - the cheap wireless networking technology that has exploded in popularity over the last year. They enjoy short trips like this one, known in the trade as "war drives," to figure out who's doing wireless where.

The term, they say, is derived from "war dialing," a technique early hackers used to ferret out computers attached to modems.

"It's amazing how much you can find," Bailey says.

War drivers' motivation may be hard to understand, but the popularity of the technology they're ferreting out isn't. For a few hundred dollars, anyone with a high-speed Internet connection can set up a base station in his home.

Add a wireless networking card to a laptop or desktop computer and voila! A home-based network where users can surf the Net from any room in the house - or even the back yard - without pesky cables. Businesses large and small are using them, too, because they're cheap and easy to set up.

Manufacturers shipped 4.9 million wireless network adapters worldwide last year, mostly in the United States, according to the Gartner Group, an industry research firm. Most of those gadgets use a communications scheme called 802.11b, nicknamed Wi-Fi. Adapter sales are expected to triple by 2003 as newer, faster technologies appear.

Techies have been quick to figure out that security on Wi-Fi networks is often poor - and that their range can extend well beyond the buildings in which they're based. With an inexpensive antenna - or even one fashioned from a Pringles potato chip can - an enterprising freeloader can jump on an open wireless network from half a mile away or farther and use it to surf the Web free of charge. With a bit more expertise, he may be able to gain access to the computers on the network itself.

That's what interests Caswell, Bailey and Wilburn. The trio met while they were computer science students at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. By day, they work as computer security experts for a consulting firm that works for the Department of Defense and other key agencies.

For fun, they go war driving. (No, it's not the only fun thing they do. And Bailey and Caswell describe themselves as happily married, although Wilburn admits that he's still looking for a date.)

Anyway, while it's a little farther afield than they usually travel, the guys say it's no big deal to drive up from their home base in Northern Virginia to look for wireless nodes in Charm City.

"You drive around and you notice banks, universities, medical centers who are building [wireless] infrastructure," says Caswell, who wears slightly lopsided wire-rimmed glasses and two T-shirts, one over the other. "And it's totally open. They have access points open to anyone who drives by."

The three men are careful not to jump on the open networks themselves. What they really do with their laptops, antennae and a Global Positioning System receiver is pinpoint the location of each wireless network they find.

Bailey, wearing a baseball cap and what looks like two days of stubble, hunches over the steering wheel during the slow drive along Federal Hill. Caswell pokes his antenna out the passenger window as Wilburn, in back, points his out a window on the driver's side.

Wilburn's laptop chirps each time it finds a new wireless access point. Caswell's is customized; when it makes contact, a sultry feminine voice sounds.

A doctor's office. Another business. A second doctor's office. A pharmacy. Most appear to be completely unprotected. Some even broadcast their identities.

"The sites aren't always labeled," Bailey says. "But you can often tell whose site it is by the direction the antenna is pointing."

The war drivers park on the street and climb up to Federal Hill Park and choose a park bench with a harbor view. Wilburn and Caswell cradle their laptops, Bailey an antenna. In a few short sweeps they find eight access points, mostly in downtown buildings they can see across the water.

"This is a cool place," Bailey says. "There's a great view. And look at all these networks."

While the three do work on security issues for a living, their war driving interest is more than professional.

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