The Woes of WiFi, Part 1: Insecure by Default

WiFi is not just for laptops anymore. All sorts of devices now connect to the Internet via WirelessFidelity technology. Smartphones — think Apple’s iPhone, among others — mobile media players and even gaming machines often come with WiFi features to enhance usability.

At the same time, more and more hotspots are popping up in hotels, resorts, airports, restaurants, coffee shops and book stores. A growing trend for municipalities and business centers is providing the public with free WiFi networks or private access points that users can access for a fee.

All too often, this conglomeration of hotspots now frequently found in public spaces comes with an unexpected cost for mobile device users hungry for an Internet connection — especially a free one. The proliferation of WiFi accessibility isseriously affecting security. More hackers are targeting WiFi as user numbers grow, warn security experts.

“WiFi is the next big nightmare. I look at it as more noise equals more risk. WiFi used to have so fewhotspots that it was real easy to monitor. Now airports alone have 50 or 60 hotspots available. Some areclearly set by bad guys. Others are riskier than others. It is now impossible to monitor,” CoreyO’Donnell, vice president of marketing for security software firm Authentium, told TechNewsWorld.

Danger Zones

WiFi users should be aware of the potential for hacking, but the majority of portable device users arenot. Wireless technology is finding its way into many devices today, but security is always an issue,added Charles Corrigan, information technology department chair at Missouri’s Ranken Technical College.

“With wireless signals radiating air space, anyone can receive and capture the information,” he warned. “In the past it took an expert to hack a wireless network, but now anyone that can follow a step-by-step guide and point and click has a good chance of hacking in.”

WiFi presents hackers with very easy targets. Even less-experienced hackers have little trouble findingthe tools to build an effective attack. For instance, Web sites like Remote-Exploit.org have hacking tools, how-to guides, and even videos, explained Corrigan.

Wireless encryption such as WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (WiFi Protected Access) security can be circumvented in minutes to hours, according to Corrigan. Most of the attacks take place in a monitoring mode, so they go undetected. Once access has been gained into a wireless network, an attacker can launch an attack on the wired network.

Easy Pickings

Another danger with WiFi is the ease with which hackers can orchestrate DOS (Denial of Service) attacksagainst wireless devices, noted Corrigan. For example, simple wireless sniffing programs such asNetStumbler and Kismet can obtain the MAC (Media Access Control) address of a wireless device.

Other software tools readily available on the Internet enable hackers to gain control of networks.Programs such as Void11 and WlanJack can use the MAC address to target a workstation and issuedisassociation packets, bumping it from the network.

“These programs can also be used to flood an Access Point with association requests, making the AccessPoint unable to respond to legitimate wireless traffic,” said Corrigan.

Clueless Users

One of the big reasons for the heightened security risks with WiFi rests with users themselves. WiFiconvenience and popularity is spreading so rapidly that newcomers to the technology are relying onout-of-the-box settings.

According to a recent study by Adjunct Professor Rajiv Shah from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an alarming 96 to 99 percent of wireless users accept the default network settings created by manufacturers without attempting network encryption. The ‘default’ setting exposes users’ networks to freeloaders in their proximity.

A wireless network left open invites neighbors to join the network, monopolize bandwidth and interceptfiles. Freeloading, however, is only one part of the problem. Lacking the extra layer of security providedby network encryption, wireless users are very vulnerable to phishing schemes.

“The convenience for WiFi is undeniable. It is a great tool for people. This makes it a hot seller. Newusers [are] now setting up their own equipment with no prior knowledge. They are joining WiFi networks with no idea about security,” said Authentium’s O’Donnell.

Comfort Zones

Most new users simply install the wireless router or the laptop connection with the default settings,noted O’Donnell. Manufacturers often set the default to enable connecting to any received signal.

This allows the unsuspecting user to connect wherever he or she is. It exposes shared files and the MyDocuments folder, which is usually part of the default settings.

“Hackers will take advantage of these opportunities when they find them. The more people get hooked on the mobile convenience of connecting to the Internet wherever they are, the more they start doing the same kinds of activities they do on their more secured desktop computers at home or in the office,” warned O’Donnell.

That kind of comfort zone makes unsuspecting WiFi users ripe for criminal attacks. For instance, roadwarriors will access their financial Web sites and other Web sites that require the use of their log-on andpassword details. This increases their risks of ID theft and other hacking.

Encryption Works

If WiFi users do nothing else to protect themselves, they should change the default settings to activateencryption of the wireless connection. The choices involve WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (WiFiProtected Access) and WPA2

“The simplest precaution when using WiFi is to enable security. Most WiFi points support WEP and WPA,” Steve Gorretta, director of product marketing at 2Wire, a manufacturer of home networking products.

WEP is an older standard that uses 128-bit encryption. It was fairly strong until newer encryptionstandards came along like WPA and WPA2. These offer enhanced protection because they use more ciphers in the encryption algorithm, Gorretta explained.

“Many laptops have high-level WiFi for corporate use. Many people are not IT trained. Plus, they don’treally care about security. About 50 percent of WiFi users have WEP enabled,” said Richard Rushing, CSO at network security firm AirDefense.

WEP vs. WPA

While using WEP is better than not using any encryption with WiFi, Rushing does not believe that WEP is one of the best protections. Lots of directions for cracking it are available, he noted, adding that WPA should be the minimum level of protection.

“WEP is secure but doesn’t take hackers as long to crack,” added 2Wire’s Gorretta. “But it is adequate for home users.”

It is essential that WiFi users become more security conscious when using wireless communication, he asserted.

“Hackers using unsecured WiFi connections are able to cast a pretty wide net given the untrainedpopulation,” concluded O’Donnell.

The Woes of WiFi, Part 2: Digital Defense

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