War(chalking): What is it Good For?

By Joe McGarvey

July 12, 2002

Experts debate whether the latest Wi-Fi craze -- symbols pointing out free wireless access -- will be a short-lived fad or have a meaningful impact on the community-based networking movement.

Rare is the catchphrase or fad whose origin can be definitely traced. In fact, a foolproof recipe for backing up an argument is to claim indisputable knowledge of the birth, for example, of the plastic flying disc, the hula hoop or even the game of baseball.

But when it comes to tracing the historic roots of "warchalking," a hobo-inspired language for identifying the location and status of wireless networks that appears to be spreading like wildfire across the Internet, all paths point to Matt Jones.

Jones, who lists his profession as Internet product designer, operates a Web site called blackbeltjones.com that serve's primarily as the Londoner's online resume and portfolio. Near the end of June, Jones published on his site a series of symbols designed to be inscribed in chalk to alert passing wireless network users to the existence of a nearby network. Jones came up with the symbol-based language by combining the current practice of using sniffer tools to locate wireless networks, known as wardriving or warwalking, and a sort of secret sign language once used by hobos in the United States to alert fellow travelers of dangers or opportunities for food and work on the open road. (More information and examples of hobo markings can be found at Hobo Signs & Symbols and Hobo Signs.)

Warchalking Symbols

After Jones posted the concept, along with a few examples, the idea was quickly embraced by Wi-Fi enthusiasts around the globe. Within days, Jones had received photographs from wireless users in at least five different countries offering evidence of warchalking in both rural and urban settings. Since the end of June, Jones has been barraged with e-mail from journalists and interested Wi-Fi users and enthusiasts. Newspapers and magazines, both online and print, such as the Seattle Times, BusinessWeek and the New York Times, have already published stories on the only weeks-old phenomenon.

Even if the practice of warchalking fails to catch on in a big way, the speed at which the concept has spread serves as further testament to the cult-like nature of wireless networking and the community-based activism that has sprung up around the notion of an unfettered, unregulated and in many cases "unmetered" form of electronic communications. Analysts say that the grassroots groundswell of ingenuity and activism in the wireless community has the same look and feel as other user-inspired and Internet-based movements, such as the sharing of music files, which led to the creation of Napster. In the year or so that Wi-Fi gear has been readily available, they say, hundreds of community-based access points, or hotspots, have been formed and industrious hobbyists have been busy concocting ways to democratize the practice further by reducing the cost of wireless networking. Arguably the best example of Wi-Fi ingenuity is the now-famous conversion of Pringle potato chip containers into wireless antennas.

Signs for the Times

Another attribute that warchalking shares with other Internet-related movements, however, is that its appearance has already ignited a flurry of speculation regarding the practice's impact and lasting power.

Several analysts, for example, believe that one of the immediate influences of warchalking will be to throw additional attention on the security of wireless corporate networks.

"The level of awareness about security risks have increased greatly over the past 12 months," says Chris Kozup, an analyst with the Meta Group research firm. "Warchalking will just bring more attention."

Russ Craig, an analyst with the Aberdeen Research Group agrees that corporations have grown more aware of the risks connected with wireless networks in the past few months and believes that warchalking is likely to make IT departments even more vigilant in combating security risks.

Both analysts downplay the notion that warchalking will primarily be used to help wireless nomads gain access into networks where they are not welcomed. While warchalking might end up exposing some corporate resources to abuse by outside users, Craig says that warchalking, if it catches on in the US, will primarily be used to notify travelers of the availability of community hotspots.

While that could serve as a valuable aid to a laptop user desperate for an Internet connection, Craig says it won't be long before information about community hotspots is readily available through other means. He describes a scenario in which wireless users will eventually be directed to community hotspots by municipal signs posted within the community.

"You'll start to see signs like you now see notifying residents of local Kiwanis Club meetings," says Craig. "It will say something like, '802.11 hot spot available between Main Street and Third Avenue.'"

From Chalk to Paint?

Though the concept is new, wireless advocacy groups appear to be divided regarding the usefulness of warchalking. Anthony Townsend, the press relation contact for NYCwireless, a group that promotes community networks in New York City, says there are more effective ways to promote awareness of wireless access points and free wireless network movements.

Media coverage and word of mouth, says Townsend, have been the most effective means of publicizing free wireless nodes in the metropolitan area, such as the recently opened network in Bryant Park, a popular gathering spot in midtown Manhattan. In addition, Townsend suggests that warchalking carries the potential for practitioners to direct wireless users to networks in which they are not invited.

"Warchalking encourages people to publicize access points that are unintentionally left open, which encourages unauthorized use of these access points," he says. "NYCwireless does not condone the unauthorized use of any access pint that may have been accidentally left unsecured."

Taking a positive stance on warchalking is Adam Shand, founder of PersonalTelco, a Portland-based organization that promotes a community-based network that is built, maintained and operated by the public.

"I think it can only help build awareness and a sense of involvement in the community wireless networking movement," says Shand, who, like Townsend, was interviewed through e-mail. "Now everyone has the chance of finding an open node and no longer has to know the right Web site to go to."

Despite the hubbub surrounding the practice, neither Shand nor Townsend say they have encountered examples of warchalking in either Portland or New York, although Shand says PersonalTelco has scrawled a few symbols to promote its mobile access point.

The one thing that both agree about is that the use of chalk to mark wireless access points is not likely to incur the wrath of local authorities or violate laws prohibiting graffiti. Townsend cites the impermanence of chalk as a possible catalyst for warchalkers to graduate to paint or a longer-lasting substance. Shand says chalk is the perfect medium for publicizing Wi-Fi hotspots.

"I'd think in the worst case it would take someone a minute to wash the marks off with a hose or a rag and some soapy water," says Shand, adding that such an effort would also serve to provide another wireless "hobo" with both a figurative and literal clean slate. "Of course, it would also take someone a minute to put it back a couple of hours later."

Joe McGarvey is a freelance networking and telecommunications writer based in New York. E-mail him at mailto:mmcgarvey@optonline.net.

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