Interview with Cyrus Peikari, CEO of AirScanner Mobile Security

Dr. Peikari is the CEO of AirScanner Mobile Security and co-author of the book “Maximum Wireless Security” from SAMS Publishing. He finished his formal training with honors in electrical engineering from Southern Methodist University in 1991. For eight years Dr. Peikari taught advanced mathematics at the SMU Learning Enhancement Center in Dallas, Tx. He has previously worked as a telecommunications software research and development engineer for Alcatel. He is a frequent speaker at information security and technology conferences, including DefCon and NetSec. He has co-authored five best selling network security books – three of them as lead author – and he has published several award-winning security software programs.

How did you get interested in wireless security?

I have been an avid UNIX user for over 20 years. However, in recent years I became interested in Windows, and I was horrified by its lack of security, so I wanted to make a difference. I started with reverse code engineering (RCE) and in 1998 was part of the first Trojan RCE project at +Fravia’s website. As with most old reverse engineers, the natural progression was to later move into network security.

From then I was inspired to move into wireless security by some of the early Wardriver pioneers, such as Wuming. The growth of free community wireless networks is also a constant inspiration. Future historians will likely remember early pioneers such as Ken Caruso as the heroes of the golden age of free networks. Security that is useful and accessible will be paramount to the sustained growth of community wireless networks.

How long did it take you to write “Maximum Wireless Security” and what was it like? Any major difficulties?

Seth Fogie and I actually “squeezed it out” much faster than any of our other books. Unlike our previous security books, this one came 100% straight from the heart. Wireless security is what we live and breathe, so the words flowed naturally. Our book is unique because it is the “closest to the street”, e.g., it goes into the most technical detail about cracking WEP and tells you exactly how to Wardrive, step by step. After publication we were surprised to see it jump to #1 out of all wireless security books on the market, but for this I give credit to the early Wardrivers who were the inspiration for the text.

What are your favorite tools for dealing with security when it comes to wireless networks and why?

For UNIX, right now Kismet is King. Each release of Kismet continues to be more and more impressive. However, for Windows we are becoming less and less impressed. Vendors keep raising their prices (who has $1,000 to spend on a simple CE sniffer?) and their products are becoming buggy and difficult to use. To address this, we are writing our own (hopefully better) software, and we plan to release it as freeware for non-commercial use.

Despite the insecurities of 802.11, the number of wireless networks is growing rapidly. What should be done in order to raise awareness of wireless security problems?

The awareness is actually quite high. Over 2/3 of businesses are scared that their WLANs will be hacked. However, they don’t have the money to pay the high prices that security software vendors demand. This is especially true for home users, who are a key part of free wireless community networks. For example, in this economy folks just can’t afford to pay $3,500 for products like Airopeek NX and then have the software lock after 12 months when the “license” expires. How many home users can afford to pay thousands of dollars per license for commercial software that is booby-trapped with one-year time lock? In this case, the best suggestion might be to spend the time learning to use free tools such as Kismet and others which can give you more useful data.

Nor can the average user afford $6,000 for a WLAN “gateway” device such as Bluesocket, which merely duplicates what you can implement for free with the native security architecture of Linux or Windows Server plus some custom scripts. Thus, the major problem is not awareness of security risks, but rather the availability of products that are inexpensive, powerful and easy to use.

Before losing thousands of dollars to a vendor that will pull the rug out from under you in a year if you don’t pay their high upgrade prices, and before paying thousands for hardware that you can build for free, consider taking the time to learn to use an alternative.

Do you see Wardriving as an extensive problem?

“Ethical” Wardriving is not only beneficial, but it is also a mandatory skill for every WLAN administrator. However, “unethical” Wardrivers could potentially pose great problems. When you hear media quotes from security experts claiming that Wardriving is an insignificant threat, you might consider taking that with a grain of salt.

Wireless security is subject to interference and therefore to Denial of Service attacks. What can be done to protect from such attacks?

As an electrical engineer, I don’t see it a major issue. RF interference and jamming can be fixed with patience and a solid understanding of electromagnetics and signal processing. More dangerous to WLANs is government restrictions on spectrum. It is important for every individual to express her views to the government about the need for expanded, unrestricted WLAN spectrum.

A significant part in the process of developing wireless networks is ensuring that the data on wireless devices is secure. What do you see as the biggest threats to that security?

All of the traditional network attacks apply to WLANs, compounded by the lack of physical security inherent to wireless. This includes application cracking, sniffing, spoofing, denial of service, and of course social engineering. In addition, “airborne” wireless viruses will invariably pose a problem, although no one can predict when or to what extent. Anyone who says that wireless viruses will never exist or will never be troublesome has not really studied the viral cycle beyond elementary biology. The truth is that in nature viruses infect ALL organisms, even simple bacteria. Thus, any new technology or platform will eventually be vulnerable when it reaches a modicum of sophistication. It is a natural law.

What are your predictions for the future when it comes to wireless security?

Whether for good or for evil, Microsoft is set to dominate the handheld and miniature device OS market. Not only is Windows CE robust, efficient and truly multi-tasking, but we must not forget that Microsoft has a tendency towards “over-enthusiastic” methods of competition. Thus, Pocket PC and Smartphone (and other spinoffs of CE) will probably dominate, whether we like it or not. Unfortunately, as Microsoft itself admits, Pocket PC itself is utterly bereft of any security architecture whatsoever. Although Microsoft plans to fix this, it is more likely that we will have to rely on third party products.

What are your future plans? Any exciting new projects?

We have several new and exciting tools currently in beta testing that we will be releasing soon. At Airscanner we are trying to make these products as technically advanced as possible, while keeping them easy to use and free of charge for home users. We are also working on another book that hopefully should be in print by summer 2003. With each book we try to address an entirely new technology, or else to present parts of it that have never before been seen in the world. We constantly strive to improve ourselves in order to best serve humanity.