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A few weeks ago I was in need of speed. So I wandered over to the local elementary school. I didn’t go there to meet dope peddlers. I was looking for high-speed wireless Internet access, commonly known as WiFi (wireless fidelity) in order to download some rather large work files. The school has a wireless network (essentially, an antenna connected to an Internet-enabled computer) that I can access from nearby. When I’m not lurking around school yards, I spend a great deal of time on the road, and often need a quick Internet connection. Establishing a wireless connection on my laptop has been a blessing. It sure beats the monotony of setting up shop in a drab hotel room or connecting to the Internet through a dial-up service, which operates at a fraction of the speed of WiFi. There are many flavors of WiFi. Some folks establish a wireless node and give away service for free: It’s the new frontier for community activists. The range of WiFi service is generally several hundred feet — similar to that of a cordless phone. But hobbyists have multiplied that range with makeshift antennas built from potato chip cans. Users hang an antenna in their apartment and let others tap in. Through such generosity, I can answer my e-mail in Bryant Park in New York City. A few coffeehouses offer free wireless access as a draw. Colleges are also early adopters of free wireless access. Others believe that there is no such thing as free WiFi. Several vendors are setting up for-pay wireless services in airports, hotel lobbies and cafes. You can pick up wireless service in Starbucks via T-Mobile, and in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport via AirPath. Starbucks wants $40 a month, or $6 a visit — access fees that are as costly as their coffee! Companies like Boingo, created by Earthlink founder Sky Dayton, provides roaming access across many networks in 1,300 locations, but in this large nation, that’s a small number. There are plenty of holes in Boingo’s coverage area. Finally, some give away their wireless access without meaning to, like the elementary school. Despite perfectly good and easy ways to block intruders, many owners of wireless networks don’t take the smallest steps to restrict access to outsiders. I’m cheap. So I sniff around for access that doesn’t block me out. When hackers roam the roads looking for unguarded wireless networks to tap into, it is called “wardriving.” The word is derived from an old hacker term, “wardialing,” which is a brute-force method of dialing thousands of phone numbers in search of unguarded modem lines. What I’m doing is clearly less mischievous. I think of it as “warworking.” I never take a peek into the networks; instead, I simply use the wireless access to get to the Internet. In my travels I have lucked into a Starbucks that has open wireless access. I’ve listened to a lot of bad jazz in the name of productivity. But is it legal? I asked a friend and colleague, technology writer John Markoff. He said what I’m doing doesn’t sound like computer intrusion to him. “You aren’t actually entering their computer,” he said. “You’re just passing through.” A computer crime expert took a different view. “Thieving scumbag!” said Mark Rasch, a former federal prosecutor who is now chief security counsel at Solutionary Inc. He was laughing when he said it, but noted that a number of state laws are extremely vague when it comes to defining computer intrusion, and so any use of another computer might put me in a gray area. “People tend to draw a line: ‘I didn’t break in, I didn’t crack a password, I didn’t go beyond what you were broadcasting.’ Unfortunately, the law is not quite so specific,” he says. And that means I could be setting myself up for trouble, especially in those states that have passed what have come to be known as “super DMCA” laws. These state versions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a federal antipiracy law, tend to define computer abuse broadly to include just about any “use of or access to a network.” (Luckily, New Jersey, where I live, is not one of those states, but Texas, where I often travel, was considering one in its recently concluded legislative session.) So I’m left wondering how to go legit. The next time I hit that Starbucks in Houston, I’m going to ask whether they know that their security is turned off, and ask whether they mind if I keep using them for a highly caffeinated remote office. I do pay them rent in the form of many, many cups of java. Even though it was convenient, I decided it was time to give up the elementary school. I just felt creepy parked behind the school in my car with the laptop screen glowing in front of me. Sooner or later a cop was going to rap his nightstick against my window, and I didn’t think he was going to be interested in my explanation of the security features of the 802.11 WiFi standard. I decided that it was time to take the big step and get a high-speed connection for our home with a wireless network to pull everything together. (Nobody wanted me drilling holes in our walls. I am the opposite of handy, and my projects inevitably end with piles of debris and new vocabulary words for the children.) I signed up for a digital subscriber line. After hearing all the horror stories about configuring networks and getting machines to talk with one another, I decided to take an unorthodox approach. I took an old Apple iBook on the theory that Apple works hard at making things easy. I configured the iBook as the wireless hub of a network by adding an $80 wireless card and clicking through a couple of software settings. I plugged wireless cards into the other computers in my house and was up and running in minutes. Once the wireless was set up in my home, I decided it was time to show my wife what a wonderful step forward we had taken. Jeanne does all she can to resist the modern conveniences that drive the rest of us buggy. She doesn’t even have an e-mail account, though she will grudgingly search the Web — that, is, as long as there’s something she really wants to know, and thinks a search will be more efficient than going to our local library. She’s a paper person. I’m not sure why I thought she would be pleased by the exploits of her husband, the wireless guy, but I did. I walked around the house, showing her that we could all be online at the same time. She admitted that this was an improvement but pointed out that when we had to share the modem line, we didn’t spend all of our time online, and occasionally talked to each other. Oh. I fired up the latest version of Apple’s iChat instant messaging software, which allows voice access to other users, and connected with Mike Godwin, a high-tech civil liberties lawyer and old buddy. The software connected flawlessly, and soon Mike and I were having a conversation, speaking into our respective computer microphones, and listening to the tinny computer speakers. Jeanne was unimpressed. She asked, “Ever hear of this neat invention called the telephone?” John Schwartz writes about business for The New York Times. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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