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TECH KNOW

Wire tap

Walking around town with a laptop uncovers interesting tidbits about the neighbors. Kristen McQuillin scans the airwaves.

"War driving" is the latest craze in the US. This is not about tanks, or Hummers, or even road rage, but wireless laptops. Armed with an 802.11 wireless card, a packet sniffer, and a GPS system, American computer hackers are hopping into their cars to make maps of wireless computer networks around town. Why? Because once an open wireless network is discovered, a few minutes of observation and a little tinkering lets the observer join the network to use it for Internet access, spying on neighbors, or a bit of industrial espionage.

Wireless networks are run on radio frequencies and normally broadcast within about a 100-meter radius. Instead of music, they broadcast network packets-the inscrutable information that computers use to talk to one another-that allow network users with laptops to roam freely within broadcasting distance. It's the network packets that war drivers are peeking into.
Because wireless networks broadcast to anyone who is listening, authorized users or not, it's wise to install security on them. WEP, Wireless Encryption Protocol, is built into wireless cards and relatively simple to implement. It takes each packet and encrypts it so that only a listener with the right key can decode it and use the information. A truly determined hacker can crack WEP encryption in less than a week, but if repelling casual onlookers is all that's necessary, WEP is adequate. However, many networks don't use it.

War walking
In the spirit of experimentation-but lacking a car-we decided to stroll through our neighborhood with a wireless laptop. No one suspected we were "war walking," but passersbys turned their heads to watch us using the computer and exclaiming in glee as we investigated our local airwaves.


In the course of three blocks, six networks appeared. Only one was encrypted, leaving five open to our sniffer. The sniffer looks for traffic on the network and displays the IP addresses of the local computers and the ones they are connecting to (websites and email servers, for example). We took at peek at the traffic on three of the networks and found one user logging onto AOL and another at Yahoo! Japan. The third sniff got us connected to a corporate intranet where we viewed some web pages under development.


If we had been really lucky, we might have found a printer on the network and surprised someone with a friendly message. Our dark side wished we'd found someone surfing porn (great blackmail fodder), but our victims were innocent, and our war walk was harmless to everyone. But consider this: if we can read your network traffic so easily, so can competitors, blackmailers, and malevolent hackers.

Won't you be my neighbor?
Not everything about open wireless is sinister. As the technology becomes truly affordable (a wireless card costs about JY13,000), grassroots organizations in the US, Europe and Australia are setting up wireless community networks that share high-speed Internet access. Each participant registers his computer and connects to others in the wireless neighborhood. One or more of the members of the network have broadband access to the Internet, creating a shared system.


To date, nobody's created a Tokyo neighborhood wireless community, but considering the concentration of networks in our neighborhood alone, it shouldn't be too long before we see them springing up.


In the meantime, SpeedNet, a consortium of TEPCO, Microsoft and SoftBank, is implementing a wireless Internet system for a fee. With wireless transmitters atop utility poles in locations just outside Tokyo, SpeedNet is poised to bring high-speed Internet to such exotic locales as Tsukuba, Chiba, and Kanagawa.

Would you like wireless with that?
Restaurants and coffee shops are already getting into the wireless act. Select Starbucks locations in the US offer wireless access and the chain hopes to expand that service to more outlets. Yahoo! Café in Harajuku is situated on the second story of a large Starbucks and offers free Internet access from their showcase of wireless laptops. You don't get the mobility of wireless, though, since Yahoo's laptops are rooted to desks.


MOS Burger is dishing up wireless in five of its stores in an experiment that runs through December. They've teamed up with NTT Communications and Malco to offer free Internet access to customers in Ginza, Shibuya, Kanda, and elsewhere.


If you're hungry for a more substantial meal with your email, Brendan's Pizzakaya in Nishi Azabu is offering Internet access to diners who bring their own wireless-enabled laptops.


If you don't have your own wireless gear, don't despair. Download Station in Otemachi will loan you a laptop and wireless card for up to three hours that you can use for free at any of the businesses in their complex, including Town Cryer, a British pub. What can compare to surfing the web while drinking a Guinness?

Yahoo! Café (Starbucks), 5-11-2 Jingumae, tel: 03-3797-6821

Brendan's Pizzakaya, 3-1-19-203 Nishi-Azabu, tel: 03-3479-8383

Town Cryer, Tokyo Sankei Bldg 6F, 1-7-2 Otemachi, tel: 5204-2201

SpeedNet, 03-4514-0881


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