The Lion and the Kimono: Wireless Insecurity

Victor emphasized the old joke about two men running from a hungry lion. To survive, one man needn't run faster than the lion, just faster than the other man. And so it is with security, he said

by / January 31, 2006
GTC's Tuesday morning training classes included a continuation of Security Boot Camp. Ira Victor, managing partner of Data Clone Labs' Information Security and Compliance Practice, briefed attendees on wireless standards and security issues -- from how a hacker can grab logon credentials from an unsuspecting hot spot user, and use them for his or her own purposes, to "CIA," the need to assure "confidentiality," "integrity" and "availability."

Ira Victor
Among the 802.11 standards, said Victor, "G" is backwards compatible to "B" but if you are running a G network and allow B card users onto it, the entire network will slow down. To the Bluetooth-enabled "Borg earpiece wearers" in the audience, Victor cautioned them to turn them off when not in immediate use, as they can be hacked through walls -- as the members of the British Parliament found out -- by someone up to 30 feet away. The problem, said Victor, is that Bluetooth can have up to seven connections at once, a bad thing for confidentiality, and Bluetooth security is very weak. A recent exploit of a hacker revealed that that "Bluesnarfing" -- picking up Bluetooth signals in public places -- grabbed address books and calendars of Members of Parliament. And in 17 minutes in a train station a hacker cracked 39 phones, and downloaded address books in an average of 15 seconds each.

And to increase the paranoia of those with wireless LANS, Victor went into some detail about their vulnerabilities, including:
  • Hijacking
  • Rogue access points
  • Sniffing traffic
  • Denial of service attacks
  • War spammers
  • and malware that bypasses firewalls
Poorly configured wireless LANs, said Victor, allow rogues to connect, and once inside, it's like an M and M: "hard on the outside and soft inside."

Throughout the presentation, Victor emphasized the old joke about two men running from a hungry lion. To survive, one man needn't run faster than the lion, just faster than the other man. And so it is with security, he said. Hackers want access to find pornography, send spam or viruses, get information such as credit card numbers or passwords, etc. etc. If a rogue is looking for a network to crack into for whatever purpose, your network or device doesn't have to be perfect, just better protected than the multitude of others that might also be available.

For those using WEP for security, Victor said it is very weak with tools to crack it readily available on the Web. WPA (Wi-Fi Protection Access) is much better, he said, but can still be cracked, especially if the user employs short or dictionary-word passwords.

What Works?
After a long talk about the vulnerabilities, Victor offered some hope to his wireless-bedecked audience. 3Com sells a wireless firewall about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It supports WEP and WPA. A Web site: supplies long randomly generated passwords that can be cut and pasted in that are very difficult to crack. He also offered a number of suggestions to improve wireless security:
  • Update the firmware and drivers on your access points and wireless cards
  • Install and configure the wireless access points and network cards
  • Reset administrators passwords to a strong password phrase, block wireless administrators
  • Enable WEP/WPA with a strong password phrase
  • Filter media access control addresses
  • set up access points so they are shut off at night
  • "War walk" to check the range of your wireless transmitter and adjust access point transmission power
  • Consider VPN and proactive security measures like force field wireless -- paint and window film that reflects Wi Fi signals.
However, he said, security is a journey not a destination, and there are no silver security bullets, especially with regard to wireless.

What's next? Victor said that RFID will soon boom, and will appear on a wide variety of products and pharmaceuticals. This will bring up new privacy issues. For example, empty medicine bottles in the trash that reveal the homeowner's medical problems. And new wireless devices will combine cellular technology with wireless Internet capabilities. While Bluetooth creates Personal Area Networks, "piconets" will provide networks of just a few inches. All of this, he said, will "open the kimono" without proper security.
Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.