Hack and Sack

About a year ago, we recall reading several pieces on “war chalking,” a trend in San Francisco, L.A., and New York, where electronic freedom fighters were developing a system for letting each other know where to find wireless interent access out on the street. They developed graffiti symbols akin to the mythical code of hobos from a bygone era.

Well, no code is necessary here, because the Strib has broadcast the names and locations of a half-dozen businesses that give it up to anyone with a wi-fi enabled laptop–and do so more or less willingly. (The 8th Street Grill, which hiply offers wireless DSL to its customers, seems sensible enough to realize this: Why would you sit outside in your cold van to “hack” into their wi-fi, when you could do it inside, over a nice turkey sandwich?)

As everyone knows, the news is not really news until someone gets hurt. And throughout Steve Alexander’s engaging article, you can feel editor and writer straining together to try to make this story somehow scandalous.

Let’s acknowledge here that most Americans can barely find the on-switch and the AOL icon. That being the case, the only real potential culprit in the mix is that old bugbear, the computer hacker. Since any phreak can already launch a nuclear missle by simply whistling into a payphone, why would anyone bother with the 8th Street Grill’s wireless port to the web? There is nothing a hacker can do with free wi-fi access that he can’t do at the public library.

Still, even with so many other pressures on our collective psyche, paranoia about cyber crime continues apace. Witness The New York Times magazine’s interview yesterday with uberhacker Kevin Mitnick–still so feared that he’s not allowed to take a crap alone, if there’s a circuit-board anywhere in the room. Mitnick will have paid his debt to society at the end of the month, after five years in the clink. And what he’s always said–and is still saying– is that serious, high-powered hacking has always depended on “social engineering,” that is, good old-fashioned human-to-human confidence games. (Forgot your password? Mother’s maiden name?) If anything, con artists are up against significantly more challenges in the online world, due to technology. Every digital transaction leaves a deep footprint in the six-inch snow of networked cyberspace. If Mitnick is so goddam smart, why did he get caught? Instead of hacking computers, he should have stuck to dumpster-diving for credit carbons.

No, the most serious electronic mischief has been perpetrated by Steve Case and AOL/Time Warner. Securing mediocre internet access for 12 million Americans, at $21.95 per month each, may be the greatest feat of “social engineering” ever. The true evil genius of AOL is that it’s a backstop–your permanent email, your last-resort ISP when everything else has gone fubar. There is undoubtedly a special term the industry has for retaining customers through neglect–thanks to that automatic debit every month, until you go through the considerable trouble to close your account. Why do it? Holding down this little escape costs a virtually painless $270 a year.

Then there’s the natural decline in the quality of content that comes with opening the door to the masses. We’re not sure about the full extent of AOL’s crime, but judging from our inbox, the world is a more exciting place, what with all those hidden Nigerian bank accounts, penis enlargement pills, and Tiny RC Race Cars! (Completely sold-out in stores!) We feel sure that we have the info-architects at America Online to thank for lowering the bar so far that even Dr. Laura has figured out how to put together a web site.

Given that tremendous contribution to human progress, no one could have known that a company as pragmatically arrogant as Time Warner would chafe under so much pragmatic populism. These are, after all, the people who publish People, the most widely read periodical in the country.

As anyone who has ever spent a half hour in a dentist’s waiting room knows, tight control of information is no guarantee against crime in any medium–particularly violations of good taste and the assault on your intelligence. Seeing AOL pull this off just as well as People must be very irritating indeed. It’s no wonder they’re looking for a concrete parachute for that little weasel.