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Researchers Expose Wi-Fi Network Weaknesses

January 28, 2009

U.S. researchers have warned that hi-tech criminals could use wireless access points to spread viruses and worms.

They found exposed security holes in large cities and the popularity of the devices make them ideal for spreading malware.

The team showed how a worm could gradually infect all access points in urban areas using modeling methods from real diseases and warned that the majority of vulnerable access points would be hit in the first 24 hours of an outbreak.

The simulation revealed that at least 55 percent of wi-fi access points would be compromised within two weeks of an outbreak occurring. The researchers said that in urban areas this could mean tens of thousands of people were at risk.

Malware attacks using wi-fi routers have been limited in the past, as the majority of attacks revolve around the creation of fake access points that steal login and other details from those using them to gain online access.

However, these ubiquitous access points could be used in a much more ambitious attack, according to the study by Hao Hu, Steven Myers, Vittoria Colizza, and Alessandro Vespignani from the University of Indiana.

The team demonstrated a theoretical attack modeled by involved attempts to subvert the firmware inside a wi-fi access point or router, which keeps the device running.

The researchers said hi-tech criminals looking to subvert wi-fi access points could rely on the fact that few people take basic steps to stop unauthorized access to the device.

Surveys showed only around 40 percent of consumers that use wi-fi routers use encryption to limit who has access to their machines. The majority of those people do not change the default password that the device ships with, making their computers more vulnerable to outside access.

And few routers have lock out mechanisms that stop endless attempts to guess passwords that have been changed, they added.

Modeled attacks were carried out in seven areas including Manhattan and Chicago. The researchers took the numbers of wi-fi routers in each location from public lists of access points. About 18,000 access points were infected over a two-week period in the New York simulation alone.

The team noted that there is a real concern about the wireless spread of wi-fi-based malware.

“Action needs to be taken to detect and prevent such outbreaks, and more thoughtful planning for the security of future wireless devices needs to occur, so that such scenarios do not occur or worsen with future technology,” the team wrote.

The researchers suggest that people change default passwords and use encryption, both of which can limit the ability of wireless-borne malware to spread.

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