Security in the wired world has typically focused on keeping users from the outside world (the Internet) out of private networks through the implementation of firewalls, both hardware- and software-based. Unfortunately, security issues with wireless networks are much more complex, since it’s typically not users from the Internet who pose the most direct threat. Instead, the biggest risk on a wireless network relates to users within close proximity who can connect to and associated with your internal access points, and from there interact with your network just like any other inside user. In this case, there’s no need for the user to get past any type of firewall – by associating with your access point, they’re already in, connected to the internal network. Scared yet? If not, you should be.
As part of trying to make the implementation and integration of wireless networking equipment as streamlined and straightforward as possible, almost all access point hardware devices ship with the least restrictive security settings possible. In fact, almost all security settings are disabled by default. If the default settings of an access point are left as is, it is exceptionally simple for any external user within range (even with limited know-how) to discover and associate with your access points. Operating systems like Windows XP make it even easier to connect to different wireless networks via their scanning processes by default, any known wireless network within range will be listed as a network that can be connected to, assuming that network hasn’t be properly secured.
Knowing that many wireless networks are not secured, a new pastime has emerged with outside users running specialized software in an attempt to discover said networks. One of the most popular utilities for doing so is a freebie called Network Stumbler (www.networkstumbler.com), a tool that will scan for networks within range, and outline whether security features like encryption are in use on these networks.
A wireless network sniffer called AirSnort can even go as far as to attempt to crack the encryption key used to secure data, and can even be used in conjunction with a GPS to literally map and store the location of the network for future reference. Sometimes referred to as war driving, there are literally users out there in automobiles with laptops, GPS equipment, and external antennas mapping out available wireless networks.
If this wasn’t bad enough, the information often makes its way into a variety of online databases, announcing open networks to the world. Whether the person attempting access to your network is driving around with a laptop or simply in the office or home next to you makes little difference. The critical consideration is that you’ll want to implement the security features available to you, and make it a priority.