The chalk markings appeared on the sidewalk a few days after I moved into my new house. A symbol that looked like two half-moons back to back was scrawled beneath the words “Outside the Box.” What did it mean? Was it some bizarre pagan ritual conducted by aficionados of business slogans? Nope—Outside the Box was the name I had assigned on my computer to my wi-fi network. There was only one explanation: I’d been warchalked.
Warchalking began a couple of years ago in London, and has since spread to the sidewalks of Seattle, New York City and San Francisco. Wireless guerrillas walk or drive around a city with wi-fi—enabled laptops, sniffing out wireless networks. They leave hieroglyphs that, to the untrained eye, look like graffiti. The symbols not only alert those in the know to a hot spot but also reveal how fast the network is and whether it requires a password. No password required for me—hence the open-faced moons.
Nobody knows who invented warchalking, but it seems the practice was inspired by stories of Great Depression-era hoboes who left chalk markings outside the most charitable houses. It was hard for me to imagine a gang of digital hoboes so hard up for Internet access that they had to squat outside my house, huddled around a Thinkpad. But if they did, I could hardly chase these virtual varmints away with a broom. After all, my network was open. It was as if I had left milk and cookies on the sidewalk. They wouldn’t be trespassing on my property. Or would they?
On websites like warchalking.org, debate rages over whether the practice is legal—or moral. The law is kind of fuzzy here, especially since each state has its own definitions of trespass in the virtual world. In California, thanks to a recent state supreme court ruling, it’s relatively clear. A former Intel employee who used the company’s network without permission to send 35,000 anti-Intel e-mails was cleared of wrongdoing. Since he hadn’t injured the network itself, the court ruled, he hadn’t broken any trespass law.
So unless those hoboes were planting viruses on my system, I would have no right to stop them surfing away. Nor, I soon decided, would I want to. (Charity begins at your home network, I say.) The rain has long since washed my sidewalk clean of double moons. But if you ever happen to wardrive by my house, don’t be shy. Knock before you warchalk. You’ll find surfing is a lot more comfortable inside the box.
OPEN NODE This wi-fi signal is unprotected
CLOSED NODE This one needs a password
WEP NODE This is extra secure, with encryption