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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Wireless networks under attack by potential hackers!

For those of you with wireless networks in their homes, I just saw this today in the Detroit Free Press (www.freep.com). The article goes as follows:

HEATHER NEWMAN: Wireless Net users listen up: You're exposed
An impromptu test in Ann Arbor reveals vulnerable networks
June 15, 2005
We drove down the streets of Ann Arbor, tallying the sins of computer users as we went.
Jim Haburne from Interlink Networks sat by my side. On his laptop, special software available for free on the Internet picked wireless computer networks out of the air. Each new network we passed generated a metallic chime.
Zing! There was a school. Zing! There was a branch of a hospital. Zing! Zing! Zing! Zing! An apartment building, blissfully packed with people shopping online and answering their e-mail.
Had we been hackers, a few taps on the laptop and we could have seen everything many of those folks were doing, exploring the secrets they thought were safely stored on their hard drives.
At the end of the drive from I-94 to downtown Ann Arbor, the tally was shocking: about 900 wireless computer networks, all detected from the street inside a moving car. More than half had no security whatsoever.
Chances are it's no better where you live. Check out your neighborhood at http://www.wigle.net/, a site often consulted by hackers looking for wireless connections, and I'll bet you find more than a few neighbors whose Internet access is open for the world to use -- and whose computers are open for the world to browse.
Wireless networks are becoming the standard for small businesses, homeowners and larger companies who want to offer access to clients or visitors in public areas of their buildings. Instead of having wires running from servers through the walls to jacks that computers and laptops can plug into, wireless networks send the information through the air.
The problem is that it's very difficult to limit how far those transmissions are sent. Even if it's hard for you to log in to your wireless network on your front porch, a hacker with an inexpensive antenna can still do it from the street. The car-mounted antenna Haburne used for what hackers call a war drive cost about $50 over the Internet and can detect networks from about three-tenths of a mile away, but that was a fancy model. Instructions abound online for how to build an even more powerful antenna for about $6 worth of materials, including a can of Pringles potato chips and a tube of toothpaste. (And yes, you get to eat the Pringles first.)
There are several commonly available types of security for wireless networks. You can hide the name of your network, which hypothetically makes it harder for people to connect. In reality, though, the first time a legitimate user connects to your network, the name of the network is sent over the air in plain text for anyone with the right hacker software to see.
Every computer network card, including those you install to use a wireless network, has a unique ID. So you can limit the IDs you allow into your network. But again, anyone with some time on their hands and sniffer software will see the ID numbers being exchanged and can easily program their own machine to pretend that it is a legitimate point of contact.
You can encode the data you send between your network and a computer or laptop using something called Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP. This is tougher to break. But given a half hour, enough information is sent back and forth between a computer and your network for the code key to be picked out of what has been transmitted.
Haburne demonstrated this with 28 minutes of data collected from his own home wireless network. It took a hacking program he downloaded from the Web exactly 9 seconds to break the code. The hacking program, like everything else he used except the antenna and a GPS receiver, was free.
So what can people see if they break into your network? Any shared files or folders, for starters. Any information transmitted not using a one-time-only, secure connection like a Secure Socket Layer (which you see most often when you pay for things online with your credit card).
Haburne's transmissions captured by the hacking program included logging into his Comcast e-mail account, which did not use SSL to protect the transmission. His username and password for his e-mail were displayed as plain text right in the information collected, as was the actual text of all the messages he sent and received. It was sobering.
Contact HEATHER NEWMAN at 313-223-3336 or newman@freepress.com.

The best way I can think of to protect your network is through the use of firewalls. These firewalls are available as both physical and software firewalls. I would recommend using both.

Related stories >
How to thwart wireless Internet invasions
HEATHER NEWMAN: Wireless Net users listen up: You're exposed
DATABASE: News and notes


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