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Wardriving Demystified

written by: Matt Isaac•edited by: Bill Bunter•updated: 5/17/2010

"Protect your wireless network from wardrivers, stay tuned for details at ten!", the announcer warns in a foreboding tone. Most of us have heard this news story, or some rendition. It graces the airways of our local news every few months. But are these rumors true or just another ratings scheme?

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    Wardriving Demystified

    It's a cool dark evening outside of a local office building. Most of the lights inside are off and everyone is gone besides a few janitorial staff cleaning. Outside the squeaky breaks and aging exhaust pipes of a small compact car can be heard as it slows to park alongside the building. The headlights turn off and the engine dies. Shortly after a faint glow can be seen emanating from the inside of the vehicle. Noticing the strange occurrence in the faintly lit parking lot below, one of the staff decides to investigate. Downstairs, he peers though a window near the car and notices the occupant yielding a laptop. Deciding that the situation is a little too suspicious he contacts the police department and requests assistance. The suspect is quickly apprehended and his computer is searched revealing thousands of company documents which were stolen over the wireless connection broadcast from the building.

    Most of us have heard this news story, or some rendition. It graces the airways of our local news every few months. "Protect your wireless network from wardrivers, stay tuned for details at ten!", the announcer warns in a foreboding tone. But, unfortunately for the unknowing viewer, this is just one more example of american media fighting tooth-and-nail for viewership. In similar residential examples the expert is usually little more than some no-life, gamer geek with little real knowledge about how computer systems actually function. They pair their so-called expert with an ignorant reporter and send them into the field to detail what they believe to be the typical practices of a wardriver. Arriving in-front of an unsuspecting family's house, they proceed to commit actual cybercrime on-air by breaking into the family's wireless network and browsing through their personal files as an example of how easy it is. It makes me begin to wonder who the real criminals are here. But, all is forgiven as the family finds out they get to be on TV.

    But the stories can't all be false, can they? Hasn't this not-so-tragic event of ripping off cooperate america actually happened? Of course it has! But this is not a debate of, "has it been done?", but rather, "who done it?".

    Wardriving is believed by many to be the act of breaking into local wireless networks with the intention of some sort of mischievous or illegal activity. It is also associated quite often with an older practice known as war-chalking, which involved stealing internet access using a series of moon-shaped symbols to mark open networks. These rumors could not be any farther from the truth. You would not describe a truck driver as someone who drives the streets looking to commit vehicular-homicide, and believe me that makes about as much sense. In reality, wardriving is the passive collection of identifying data packets and GPS coordinates of millions of wireless networks around the world. It's the equivalent of writing a phone book for wireless networks, with no tangible personal information attached. A unwilling or unknowing participant can have their information removed from this online "phonebook" at anytime. A team of wardrivers will navigate their vehicle over a large area, usually a heavily populated city, with a powerful antenna, GPS receiver and computer(s). Like a radio station identifies it's name, frequency and location once an hour, wireless routers also broadcast a similar message, in data packet form, every few seconds. Ever went to connect to your own wireless network and noticed that several other network names popped up too? That's because your computer is receiving those same packets. This is not illegal in anyway and is about fifty-percent of what wardriving is. The remaining half is a combination of logging these packets, attaching current GPS coordinates and navigation. As previously stated, this data collection is passive which means wardrivers do not connect to any of the said networks nor are most ever in close enough proximity to do so. At the end of the night their findings are uploaded to the web, added to their running total and the entered into the worldwide database of wireless networks. The goal is to collect the as many unique wireless networks as possible.

    So when it comes right down to it, wardriving is simply a sport for computer hobbyist. As a founding member of one of the top wardriving teams in the world, I have logged over 40,000 wireless networks. Not once have my teammates or I ever committed cybercrime during our wardriving excursions. If someone decides to cross the line, then they become hackers just as auto drivers can also break a number of other laws and become criminals on the road. But, the fact is that most don't and there is little to worry about if you see an antenna laden car full of computer junkies driving through your neighborhood.


A complete guide to what wardriving is about and what you need to try it at home.
  1. Wardriving Demystified
  2. A Wardriving Instructional