How secure is your neighborhood?
Unsecured wireless networks are a major electronic security headache, both in the United States and abroad. A website for wi-fi enthusiasts called Wigle.net made a serious effort to chart the number of unsecured networks in 2010, by enlisting volunteers to drive around with laptops and smart phones, mapping out the wireless networks in their immediate vicinity. These volunteers discovered that almost 28 percent of the 26 million wireless networks they detected were completely unsecured, lacking both passwords and data encryption.
Some of these networks are deliberately provided by restaurants, hotels, and coffee shops. Many others are broadcast by home users who don’t understand electronic security well enough to appreciate the need for password protection on their networks. Wireless connections have become increasingly popular—who wants to bother with running network cables from every bedroom and study in the house to a central hub?
An increasing number of devices other than personal computers can take advantage of wireless networking, including video game consoles, smart phones, DVD players, and even TV sets. Some of the latest digital pocket cameras have wi-fi modems, allowing the user to upload photos to social media sites like Facebook instantly, without having to fuss with interface cables or remove memory cards.
Modern wireless Internet routers are far more powerful than early models. A few years ago, it wasn’t easy to buy a router that could cover every room in a good-sized house. Now it’s possible for good equipment to pick up wi-fi signals from hundreds of yards outside the house, and as both Google and Wigle.net demonstrated, unsecured networks are easily sniffed out from moving vehicles.
Unsecured wireless networks present several security threats. Home and small-business users often forget to protect their computer data with passwords, leaving documents open for inspection by anyone who can patch into their network. Internet bandwidth can be gobbled up by unwanted “guests,” as one apartment-dweller with a good wireless router unwittingly provides Internet access for free to all of his neighbors. Most disturbingly, hackers love to patch into randomly chosen unsecured networks when they spread spam emails and viral software, or try cracking into secure Web resources… because if they’re detected, the intrusion will be traced back to the unsecured network they took advantage of.