The wardriver and the cop

Doc Searls often writes about how his modus operandi for acquiring Internet access while traveling is to cruise residential neighborhoods running MacStumbler, which finds wireless access points and speaks to you in different voices depending on whether the AP has WEP turned on or off. Jeremy Zawodny recently wrote about his wardriving adventures in and around Toledo, Ohio, while visiting his family for the holiday. So it was probably inevitable that I would find myself parked in front of the junior high school in a small town in Michigan a few nights ago, explaining my odd behavior to a local cop.

The last time we visited my wife's family there, several years ago, schools were the only source of broadband access. Since two of my sisters-in-law are teachers, I was able to visit their classrooms and jack in. This time, I found a dozen access points in the immediate vicinity of my in-laws' house. None, predictably, was WEP-enabled. The strongest signal came from the WaveLAN at the junior high, so I parked there to synch mail and RSS.

It was a surreal experience to have available, in such a situation, all the essential tools of my professional life: a cellphone; high-speed Internet access; even videoconferencing if I'd needed it. And to be honest, it wasn't an entirely comfortable experience. So I half expected the flashing blue lights that came up behind me. Out-of-state plates, motor running, headlights off, and a blue glow in the cockpit: I presented a very odd picture indeed.

After he ran a check on my license, the cop was really nice about the whole thing. I wondered if he'd tell me to leave, but he didn't, he only asked me to park closer to the curb. We talked about how the school might want to lock down its AP. As it happens his wife works for the school -- it is a small town -- so I guess that message was delivered.

I suppose this scene has played out differently in other places. After all, the script hasn't been written yet. Few small-town cops would guess that the driver of a vehicle suspiciously parked outside the junior high would be, of all things, checking his email. No policy exists for this situation. I imagine my cop wondered later, as I did, what such a policy might be.

Is it conceivable that a small town might designate a well-known AP for public access, including drive-through use? The public library would be the obvious candidate. (Ideally its public-access AP would be isolated from the library's internal network.) During regular hours, visitors could bring laptops inside, but after hours they could park outside in a well-lit and easily-monitored area. Then there'd be no incentive to cruise schools and residential neighborhoods scanning for APs.

A strange concept, admittedly. But I can think of stranger things. One is wardriving. Another would be policies that might emerge to prevent it.

Former URL: