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Out of the box and into the ether

Many wireless home networks skip security

By Lila King
CNN

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The Worldwide War Drive strives to raise awareness of vulnerable wireless networks.
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(CNN) -- Chris Hurley is a man with a mission. He wants you to know how to steer clear of people like him. People with his equipment, anyway.

Hurley is a wardriver -- a tech geek who, as a hobby, loads a laptop, a network detector and a GPS locator into his 1994 Mustang GT and roams the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, sniffing the air for unprotected wireless computer networks. He doesn't connect to the networks he finds (that's illegal), he just makes a note of them and their security settings.

This summer Hurley and a group of some 600 like-minded wardrivers sniffed out and mapped 228,537 wireless networks in 41 states, 17 countries and 4 continents, in an eight-day "Worldwide War Drive" (WWWD). It was the fourth in a series of worldwide efforts Hurley has organized to raise awareness of vulnerable wireless networks. He's also written a book on the subject, called "Wardriving: Drive, Detect, Defend. A Guide to Wireless Security."

The popularity of wireless networking -- sometimes called Wi-Fi -- has surged in recent years, but many of the new networks do not use even the most basic security precautions.

WWWDers check networks they find for two of the simplest protections: a unique SSID (a name that identifies a network) and some kind of encryption. Twenty-eight percent of the networks spotted in WWWD4 were operating without either of these options. That makes them easy prey for even the most casual criminal.

"People are so excited to get the new technology and get it up and running ... they're not even thinking about security," says Brian Grimm, marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group.

Four steps to a secure network

Wireless networks are uniquely vulnerable because they don't have the same physical boundaries that wired networks have. Instead of cords, a wireless network uses a radio signal to connect the different parts of the network. That signal doesn't necessarily end at your front door -- it may reach the sidewalk or your neighbor's house, or even across the street.

That means that wireless households could unwittingly share their broadband connection with a neighbor or someone who sends spam e-mail or worse, then drives away to keep from being tracked. Shared files are also available to anyone who can connect to the network.

Accessing a corporate network while using wireless can be a danger, too, said Patrick Gray, a retired FBI agent who specialized in computer crime. Gray is now a director with Atlanta-based Internet Security Systems and heads the ISS team responding to external or internal network-related emergencies.

"If you bring that laptop from corporate home and access your wireless router, you are no longer under the sanctity of the corporate environment, you're out there in the wind," Gray said. "And once a bad guy finds your box, he will then follow the permissions of that laptop. And that means once he gets into your computer via your wireless router, when you plug that computer back into a VPN, tunneling back into your corporate environment, you're taking the bad guy with you."

Hurley, who by day is an Internet security professional with a Maryland firm called Assured Decisions, recommends four simple steps wireless networkers can take to keep their networks to themselves:

  1. Change the SSID. That's the name that identifies a network. The default settings that come out of the box are well known. Use the name of your favorite song or something else you will remember. Don't use Social Security or phone numbers or any identifiable number. Also, if possible, use non-printable characters (for example, smiley faces or vowels with umlauts) in your SSID. Some equipment used to detect SSIDs does not recognize these characters.
  2. Enable MAC address filtering. This lets you specify precisely which computers may connect to your network.
  3. Disable SSID broadcast. The most common network scanner won't see your network if you disable broadcasting.
  4. Enable encryption. There are two types of encryption technology for wireless networks: WEP and WPA. WEP is flawed, but it is much better than nothing. If your equipment is WPA compatible, make sure your password is at least 40 characters long and includes upper and lowercase letters, special characters (!,* and & for example) and numbers.

Each of Hurley's four recommendations is a standard option available on most wireless home networking gear. For the most part, enabling security involves no more than clicking a checkbox or typing in a new name.

But the procedure can differ on products from different manufacturers, so setting up security on all the pieces of a network can mean that home users have to reinvent the wheel at every turn.

A simple goal

To simplify the process, the Wi-Fi Alliance has undertaken a standardization initiative for enabling security features. "If the process were the same for everything, the learning curve wouldn't be so steep," Grimm says.

Some manufacturers, too, are making efforts to help consumers step up their security. Linksys, a company that makes some of the most popular Wi-Fi gear, has partnered with Broadcom and Intel to make security set-up wizards for wireless networks that are automatic and "as absolutely simple as possible," says Malachy Moynihan, Linksys vice president for engineering and product marketing.

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Wardrivers sometimes mark wireless hot spots with symbols. Known as warchalking, this symbol represents an open hot spot.

D-Link Systems, another manufacturer of home wireless networking equipment, puts security prompts in its configuration routine and includes security pointers in its installation manual.

But manufacturers are quick to point out that while security is certainly a concern, it is not because wireless networks are constant victims of attacks.

Not one of the calls D-Link's technical support line has received over the years has been about loss of information through a wireless hack, spokesman Darek Connole says. "It's like seatbelts," he says. "Everybody knows you should put them on, but if you haven't heard of anyone who's been hurt, you won't do it."

"People are more scared as a concept than as a reality," says Moynihan. "I'm not saying people shouldn't secure their wireless networks, but they are probably more vulnerable when they are receiving e-mails."

Even so, Hurley says a little precaution never hurt anybody. "You don't want to be a target of convenience," he says. "If a thief sees your network has a unique SSID and enabled encryption, why would he bother when he can drive a mile down the road and find a security-free one?"


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