Not many of us have had firsthand experience with the symbols that hobos used during the Depression to let each other know where a free bed or meal would be available. But Matt Jones, a British Internet product designer, resurrected those secret signs and used their basic idea to come up with a new iconography called warchalking--for use by wireless hobos.
Like the hobo signs of yore, these symbols, drawn with chalk on sidewalks or buildings, also alert passersby. But this time the goal is not food or shelter--it's Wi-Fi broadband access. And although the genesis of warchalking arose from the Internet-inspired "free information for all" concept--with owners of short-range 802.11b or Wi-Fi standards alerting those in need of access points--the idea could take on very sinister forms if your company is warchalked and nonregistered users use your network to get on the Internet. Cell phone manufacturer Nokia Corp. has termed warchalking theft. And it's not in good stead with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation either, which warns that unscrupulous piggybackers cannot only slow your systems down, they could use your network to issue spam.
Despite its detractors, warchalking, which Jones first posted to the Web last June, looks likely to mature in the coming months. For example, the CIO for the state of Utah is interested in using warchalking to alert 22,000 state employees to the existence of wireless networks in state office buildings and conference rooms. So far, most sightings have been in Britain (warchalking's birthplace), New York and Seattle. Don't be surprised if the symbols soon find their way to a patch of pavement near you.