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Wireless Hot Spots; are you Warchalking?

In times of long ago during the US great depression when hobos were wandered about they created a way of communicating with others; ?Warchalking?.This is not a technical or legally recognized name. This is a word that was used by hobos to mark certain areas with a chalked symbol to let other fellow hobos know what is here. 

Here are a few examples:

safe handout This one means ? This is a good place for a hand out?

Not safe ?This is NOT a safe place?

Officer of the law lives here ?Officer of the Law lives here?

These are just a few of the symbols that hobos used to let each other know what was in the area. Today there are those of us now use similar symbols to identify ?Wireless Hot Spots ?. 

What is a Wireless Hot Spot?

What is a wireless hot spot you ask?  A wireless hot spot is an area that can be as small as a café or as big as a convention center or hotel complex.  In a basic sense, it?s an area that is served by a single Wireless LAN or a network of WLANS, but not a WAN. 

For the end user, a Wireless Hot Spot is the location where the user can establish Internet access via a mobile wireless device, a wireless Ethernet card plugged into a laptop, a PDA, Smartphone or any other wireless network device.

A Hot Spot operator derives revenue directly from the end users experience and access.  The Hot Spot operator provides access to much more than just a Wireless network, they need to induce customer foot traffic into their spot. So a Hot Spot will provide other amenities, much like your local coffee house or diner.  As long as the customer is in there to use the Wireless Network, then they might as well have a bite to eat.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what a Wireless Hot Spot is, and what Warchalking is we can move on to the meat of this article.  Our dear friends in a far away land known as London seem to be the first group of geekers who started this craze.

In an Article written by Matt Loney, ZDNet (UK)  says   ?Warchalking, as the practice has been coined by founder Matt Jones, entails simply drawing a chalk symbol on a wall or pavement to indicate the presence of a wireless networking node. If you see one of these symbols, you should–in theory at least–be able to whip out your notebook computer equipped with an 802.11 wireless networking card, and log on to the Net.?

So by reading this statement correctly you can just find the ?chalk symbol? break out your wireless notebook (or what not) and log on.  I personally have tested this theory and to my surprise, it works.  How ever, there is much more to it than you meets eye.  You have to know what it is your looking for. There are a couple of signs that you need to be aware of if you decide to go for a walk.  Warchalking is based on an ad hoc process of people discovering Wi-Fi nodes whether they are commercial or not and ?Chalking? it?s presence with a symbol on the ground.  So keep your eyes open.  Most people will look at these symbols and think, ? Damn kids and their graffiti.?  Not knowing what that symbol really is.

Matt Jones who coined the phrase of ?Warchalking? reported as being a bit ?overawed? by everything.  Matt Jones came up with the idea after watching students of the UK Architectural Association in what they called a “wireless Internet performance”. The students had chalked an office plan on the pavement of London’s Bedford Square, and sat out in the virtual office with laptop computers hooked up to the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection.

Matt Loney of ZDNet (UK) writes, “I thought it seemed like a really nice idea,” said Jones, who has an architectural background himself. “I have only had a wireless networking card for two months myself, and was interested in how it could change a city.”

Several days later Jones was chatting to some friends, and someone mentioned the symbols that hobos used to use. “These were all about making visible what might otherwise go unnoticed,” said Jones. After spending half an hour in Adobe Illustrator, Jones set up a Website to publicize his idea, emailed the address to a few friends, and waited.

That was Sunday. By Tuesday, the popular website in the United States had picked up on the story and the flood of emails began, including ideas to expand the basic set of three symbols to include the direction of the node.

Matt Jones had come up with 3 simple designs for decoding what Hot Spot you were in.

War Chauking signs

The code consists of two semicircles back to back to indicate an open node, a circle to indicate a closed node; and a circle with a W inside it to indicate a WEP node, which will probably be inaccessible to the public because such nodes use encryption for security. Each symbol has a Service Set Identifier (SSID) at the top, which acts as a password to the node. SSIDs are easily obtained using readily available sniffing software.  Not that I told you about how to do this.

The idea of the warchalking blog was to put an imperfect idea out there and see what happened,” said Jones. “It has been interesting to see how it has happened, but it has grown so fast it does not really feel like my idea anymore. I feel more like the gardener than the builder.” Nevertheless, Jones hopes to finalize version one of the runes some time soon.

Some of you out there might be thinking why not use a sticker or some spray paint? Chalk can wash off with the rain and people have to keep going around putting up the symbols again and again.  First you have to think, using chalk shouldn?t piss off too many people.  After all, what do you think Mr. Jonny Law would say if he saw you using a can of spray paint making a symbol on a wall or the ground and your not wearing an orange vest and bright yellow hat?  Most likely your going to get fined.  But chalk?  You see enough hop-scotch marks all over the place and IT DOES wash off easily.

If you?re a system admin and your concerned about people using your bandwidth you might want to take a walk around your neighborhood and look for any of these symbols, then you?ll know.  That could be a positive side for you.  At least you?ll know where the extra bandwidth is going now and now you can plug the leak.

With this in mind there are tons of people out there who are asking these basic questions:

Is it Illegal?

Probably, it could be characterized as they guy who buys the Dish cable system and hacks the card.  The signal is out there I?m just grabbing a peace for my self.

Is it Immoral?

Depends on who you are? Maybe it is maybe it isn?t.  I mean you are using other peoples wireless computer networks to use the Internet.

In my readings and searching I think I?ve found the most interesting question of all, direct from our friends at

Wait a second. If people can get Internet for free, won’t everyone just stop paying for Internet access and the whole thing will fall apart?

OK, this is where it gets sort of technical. The Internet works by sending small messages back and forth between computers. If my computer was only connected to yours, then only we could talk to each other. But if I can connect to another computer that’s already on the Internet, then I can talk to everyone else by sending my messages through that computer.

If we were to build a US-wide wireless network, then I could talk to any other computer in the country. Obviously my transmitter isn’t strong enough to make it all the way across, but I can pass it to your transmitter which can pass it on and on and so on. Radio waves also travel at the speed of light, so this isn’t as slow as it sounds. Anyway, for most sites, I won’t even need to go onto the wired Internet, as the free wireless network can pass me on to most sites (a lot of websites are hosted in the US).

Now we’ll still probably need some wires to add redundancy between major cities and across oceans, but this could probably be sponsored by some organizations, collaboratively maintained for a voluntary nominal fee (probably a lot less than the $40/mo. I pay now) or supported by the local government. At any point this is still a ways off.

Of course, the established interests who are making a ton of money off of Internet access might have some idea that something like this might happen, which may be why they’re trying to convince people that Warchalking is theft. Just a thought.?

So there you have it.  A basic understanding of what Warchalking is.  Now are you going to march out into you local city and start looking around? Well, maybe if the day is sunny enough, the wind cool enough, and you have lots of time on your hands.

I would tell you where if found my symbols in my city, but hey if you don?t live here then it won?t really do you any good.  For those of you who do live here, go out and enjoy the day as your looking for the symbols.  You?ll find lots of neat shops and restaurants to have a bite at while you out and about.  It?s also a great way to get to know your city.

So take your wireless devices in hand and head out into a city near you.  Start Walking and Chalking.

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