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Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Wild, Wild Wireless

By Andy Murray
Staff Writer

To tap into a homeowner's computer, Harold Belbin simply maneuvers his vehicle into the driveway and stops. That's when a $10 wireless antenna from Radio Shack and free software Belbin downloaded off the Internet begins searching for unprotected wireless networks in the area.

In a matter of seconds, Belbin has found a nearby network with the default name from the manufacturer still etched into the system, indicating optional security features have yet to be switched on. Belbin doesn't log onto the network, which would be illegal, but he could and from there likely would have access to the network's entire database of photos, credit card numbers and medical information.

"If you're not afraid, you should be," said Belbin, cofounder of the Visiting Geeks consulting business in Merrimac.

Wireless networks -- the cord-cutting technology that removes unsightly wires from homes and frees up laptop users to go wherever they want while remaining able to go online -- has left a wide open door into formerly secure wired networks, Belbin said.

Belbin demonstrated how vulnerable most networks are on a recent afternoon by driving through Andover and counting how many networks were locked and how many networks were open to outside users. The technique, called "war-driving," allows individuals to hack into unprotected computers and peek at stored information. On a 6-mile circuit between Shawsheen Plaza and Merrimack College, Belbin found 118 wireless networks, 60 percent of them unprotected.

The owners, including residential dwellers and businesspeople, are leaving private records, correspondence, even pictures and home movies vulnerable to high-tech criminals and snoops, Belbin said. They also are relying on the goodness of others not to use their network as a staging point, either to surf the Internet or do something more disruptive such as download protected music files or launch a destructive Internet virus.

"It's like driving around and finding 70 percent of cars unlocked with the key in the ignition," said Belbin, who said state and local law enforcement agencies often aren't knowledgeable to investigate computer crimes and federal agencies are often too strapped to investigate all but the most serious pornography or terrorism charges.

"For now, it's the Wild West out there. If you don't protect yourself, no one else is going to," Belbin said.

Belbin isn't the only one worried. The research firm Gartner said in June it expected wireless networks to be a major source of security breaches by 2006, when 85 percent of laptops and 60 percent of handheld devices are expected to be wireless-enabled. Belbin, who monitors wireless security bulletins and works for owners who hire him to beef up their security, says he has seen wireless network attacks skyrocket over the past 12 months as more and more homes and businesses have moved to wireless systems.

"I would say it's 1,000 times worse than it was a year ago," Belbin said.

Wireless networks are vulnerable because they transmit data via radio waves that can be picked up from as far as 500 feet if systems are left unprotected. Because most users prefer the ease and convenience of wireless systems, many users choose or simply forget to switch on wireless security features, Belbin said. The oversight leaves a wide-open gate through most networks' security fence, or firewall, Belbin said.

Financial and health-related businesses tend to have the most secure wireless networks, Belbin said. Home-run businesses and residences tend to have the worst. Gartner estimates fewer than 10 percent of all businesses have wireless security policies.

Broker/Manager Anne Webster of ERA Home & Family Real Estate in Andover knows better than some the need to protect customers' private information. Two months ago, Webster's firm installed wireless networking systems at the company's offices in Andover, Groton and Tewksbury. While Webster said the company was "explicit" that it wanted the highest security available to protect data such as customers' addresses and telephone numbers, she noted some employees have been able to log onto the network from the office parking lot.

Webster says the system is still password protected and not vulnerable, but she sees a problem emerging if not all businesses pay to have their wireless systems secured and protected.

"It's definitely going to be a concern because once you log onto the network, you can get access to all the files," Webster said.

Even a private residence can have information that is potentially embarrassing or damaging were it to be stolen. Belbin said pictures and credit card information are two of the first targets for any criminal who has invaded a wireless network.

Wireless users can protect themselves and their businesses by installing wireless security software that comes with their system or can be purchased separately. Besides authentication that prevents unregistered computers from signing onto a wireless network, encryption software also scrambles data transmissions to outside viewers.

That may be enough for small businesses and private residences. For larger business with more important information, consultants also can recommend commercial-grade security systems with more robust features. Visiting Geeks also recommends its own wireless "audit," which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of a residence or business' wireless network. The audit, which costs $99 not including parts or software, plugs security holes and configures wireless networks so computers aren't slowing each other down, Belbin said.


Visiting Geeks offers a $99 wireless security check service. Learn more.


Copyright© 2003 Eagle-Tribune Publishing. All Rights Reserved.