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Hot spots for hackers: Wireless networks
By Corilyn Shropshire
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


March 29, 2005

War drivers are people who ride in their cars with laptop computers and scout for wireless Internet, or WiFi, connections. War driver Rick Farina says he is doing good by identifying unsecured wireless networks and, for a starting price of $75, offering to help their owners protect them.

Other war drivers aren't so well intentioned. They take advantage of another person's wireless router - a device allowing multiple computers in a home or office to share high-speed access to the Internet - to snoop, to spam, and at worst, to steal personal information.

Consumers are rapidly setting up these convenient Internet connections, but many are unaware that unsecured, their home wireless networks can be tapped into accidentally by neighbors surfing the Web or intentionally by criminals eager to hack into a personal computer.

"It's like handing everyone access to your network," said Farina, who built his business, WiredWireless, around helping people secure their wireless networks. "If (hackers) try hard enough, they can do anything they want. Why make it easy for them?"

WiFi networks are no longer the domains of geeks prowling for the coolest new technology. It's estimated that 10 million American homes now have them, and WiFi "hot spots" are popping up everywhere - in coffee shops, airports, hotels and libraries.

Since the wireless router is designed to extend the radio signal providing an Internet connection, its range can reach as far as 150 feet onto the street, the yard, even into nearby homes.

So a thief could sit on the curb outside a house or business and with some savvy, a laptop with a WiFi card and the right software, gain access to private information on your computer.

Law enforcement officials, increasingly concerned about wireless networks, say the possibilities for mischief run the gamut . A wireless hacker's intentions could be as malevolent as identity theft or as benign as using a neighbor's Internet connection to check e-mail or scan the newspaper online.

Some times they drain other people's bandwidth to illegally download movies and other copyrighted material or access pornography.

Others are pranksters, who maliciously lock people out of their wireless networks just for fun, or they are spammers, who use other people's Internet access to send masses of unsolicited e-mail.

At worst, sophisticated hackers tap into hard drives to access private information, including credit card numbers, bank accounts and passwords. Because they are using a wireless connection, the crime cannot be easily traced back to them.

"All of the risks can be distilled down to one issue," said Larry Rogers, a senior member of the technical staff at the U.S. Computer Emergency Response Team or CERT, which tracks and monitors computer security issues. Wireless networks are vulnerable, and determined hackers will penetrate them.

Mike Godwin, legal director at Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C., technology think tank, said most consumers would not notice if a neighbor tapped into their network to surf the Web because it would not affect the speed or strength of their Internet connection.

Godwin said it's not illegal to use another person's wireless connection, but polite neighbors might want to determine whose service they are borrowing and offer to help pay the cost of the high-speed cable or DSL Internet connection.

Consumers can provide protection to their networks by activating built-in encryption capabilities. But many newcomers to the wireless world don't know they need such security or ignore it because it's too complicated to set up.

Computer experts suggest that at the minimum, consumers who buy wireless routers should deploy the basic security and encryption measures that are suggested by the router's manufacturer.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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