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[ISN] A latte, a Wi-Fi link and a hacker
From: InfoSec News (isnc4i.org)
Date: Wed Nov 26 2003 - 01:45:32 CST
Story by Andrew Brandt
NOVEMBER 25, 2003
If you have ever connected to the Internet through a wireless hot spot
at a Starbucks, McDonald's or other business, you know how convenient
it can be. Unfortunately, the setup is convenient for other people,
too -- hackers intent on stealing your log-in information for their
At most businesses that offer wireless access, connecting is as simple
as setting up an account and choosing how you'll be billed (either on
a pay-as-you-go basis or at a flat rate for unlimited access). Then
you sign in with the user name and password that you set up in
But a group of clever independent security analysts has created a
program that makes it easy for a hacker to slurp up your log-in
information before you've even quaffed the foam on your cappuccino.
The miscreant can then use the information to obtain free wireless
Internet access and make you foot the bill.
The new tool, called Airsnarf, broadcasts a powerful signal that
disconnects any nearby hot spot users from the Internet. Then it
broadcasts a sign-in page that looks like the log-in site of the
legitimate Wi-Fi provider. When users, figuring they were knocked off
the Internet momentarily, log in again, their user name and password
go to the hackers, not the ISP.
The Airsnarf program could be running on the laptop -- or even the PDA
-- of the person sitting next to you. With the right antennas,
crackers intent on stealing passwords wouldn't even need to get out of
their cars. All they'd have to do is park in front of the cafe, sit
for a while running Airsnarf and then move on.
The program was never intended to be used as a tool for theft,
according to its creators, members of a loosely affiliated group of
computer security experts who call themselves the Shmoo Group.
"Airsnarf was developed and released to demonstrate an inherent
vulnerability of public 802.11b hot spots," the group writes on its
Spokespeople for two of the largest wireless access providers,
T-Mobile (the provider for Starbucks) and Wayport (which serves many
airports across the U.S.), say they don't know of any subscribers
whose log-in information was stolen this way and don't anticipate the
problem being widespread enough to warrant major changes to the way
they run their services. Both say that if you notice odd usage
patterns in your account, you should report them to your provider's
customer service department, which will issue credits for stolen
service. But can a hacker use your log-in information to get at more
sensitive personal data? Both companies say no. Though you may use the
same user name and password to connect to the Internet and to manage
your account online, the ISPs report that credit card numbers and
other sensitive data are hidden from view when you log in to your
If you use a wireless hot spot, the best defense against this kind of
service theft is to change your password regularly -- at least once a
month. And keep close tabs on your monthly bill, even if you're on a
flat-rate plan; you may not be losing money, but you still shouldn't
let crime pay for data thieves, who might be using your wireless
account for other nefarious purposes.
Andrew Brandt is senior associate editor for PC World. E-mail him at
privacywatchpcworld.com. Click here to read more Privacy Watch
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