Wireless networks have become so prevalent in the first world that they could almost be considered critical infrastructure. Go from house to bus station to airport to Starbucks to the library – there’s a 99% chance you’ll find a WiFi network in each of those places. Schools and businesses are powered by wireless Internet, too. But with all of these hotspots available, there’s a hidden danger.
There are a host of potential problems and security holes that come with wireless networks. Hackers and malicious users are everywhere, doing their best to misuse and abuse whatever network they can gain access to. And while it would be nice to have full wireless coverage all around the nation, it introduces the capacity for wardriving, a security risk that could harm you.
What is wardriving? If you aren’t sure, then you should keep reading. Knowledge is, after all, the first step towards properly guarding yourself against threats.
Wardriving is not as brutal as the name might imply, but it can be dangerous (in a privacy-related sense, not a physical sense). In simple terms, wardriving is when someone drives around with a device that is capable of WiFi connection, e.g. a laptop or smartphone. The person uses the device to seek out WiFi networks in the area and stores them for use later.
The term is said to have originated from wardialing, which was a method used in the 1980s to hack certain phone numbers – by using computers to dial random numbers in search of active modems. This method was popularized in the film WarGames, hence the name. Except instead of active phone modems, wardriving is all about active WiFi networks.
The Dangers Of Wardriving
Okay. So there are people driving around your neighborhood, scanning the skies for whatever wireless networks they can get their hands on. What’s the big deal? Why should you worry about it? How does any of it affect you?
For one, malicious users can use wardriving as a means of finding open, unsecured networks. If your network is unsecured or weakly secured, hackers can gain access to it and do some dodgy things. The least criminal activity they could do is to simply piggyback on your connection and use it for free Internet, causing you to lose some precious bandwidth.
But some piggybackers may use your WiFi to conduct illegal activities, ranging anywhere from torrenting illegal files to downloading (or uploading!) child pornography. Sometimes they do this so that they can’t be caught, leaving you to deal with the fallout. Other times, more malevolent users may specifically be aiming to frame you.
One of the most dangerous forms of mischief is to sniff your network data packets. By doing this, they can intercept and interpret your network data, which allows them to extract sensitive information–like usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, bank numbers, and more.
Wardriving & Google
Did you know that Google was once involved with wardriving? In particular, one Google engineer had actually designed a program that was used in the Street View car to collect personal information from WiFi networks that came into range of the car between 2007 and 2010. In an unsurprising twist, the program that this engineer created (NetStumbler) became one of the most popular wardriving programs out there.
To be clear, there wasn’t any malicious intent by Google here. The Street View wardriving was supposed to collect wireless hotspot locations – like at the local Starbucks – so that those hotspot locations could be shown on Google Maps. In essence, Google just wanted to map out wireless access points.
The FCC eventually cleared Google of any wrongdoing. However, Google did come out of this mess looking a little worse for wear.
This is just another reminder that we should be very careful with our wireless networks. Knowing that there are programs out there that specifically search for weak and unsecured networks, you should do your best to keep your network as private and controlled as possible. Otherwise, you never know when you could be the unfortunate victim of a drive-by network hopper.