London warbiking reveals worrying state of Wi-Fi security

At Infosecurity Europe 2014, IT security company Sophos this week highlighted the worrying state of wireless security in the UK’s capital city, when it sent security expert James Lyne and his computer-equipped bicycle onto the streets of London to test how safe homes, businesses, and even people on mobiles phones are from cyber criminals.

Lyne, Global Head of Security Research at Sophos, went “warbiking” across the city to track down unsecure wireless networks and spotlight user behaviors that could be exploited by rogue hackers, and he discovered some alarming results: “Incredibly, conventional wireless network security is still a major concern, despite the security industry assuming such issues had been resolved years ago. Many would assume these methods are “old hat’ but it is still a very viable attack vector that demonstrates basic security best practice is not being adopted. ” says Lyne.

“As our London Warbiking exercise found, there are an astonishing number of businesses and home users employing insecure, poorly implemented, or even defunct wireless security protocols. With our voracious hunger to be online at all times, this is leaving millions of people, companies and their valuable data open to attack.”

London was the latest stop on the “World of Warbiking” tour – a global research project targeting major cities across the globe. Conducted over two days around the streets of the capital, Lyne’s warbiking exercise revealed that of 81,743 networks surveyed, some 29.5 percent were using either the known-broken Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) algorithm, or no security encryption at all. A further 52 percent of networks were using Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) – a no longer recommended security algorithm.

“Even within the security industry there are myths and misunderstanding about what the real risks are with wireless. Many argue that the unencrypted, intentionally open networks (the majority of the 29.5%) are “OK’ as they use a captive portal to register users. Unfortunately the standard user doesn’t recognize that major brand XYZ wireless is not encrypted and that their information can be picked up by anyone with £30 piece of equipment available on Amazon,” said Lyne.

Just as worrying was many people’s total disregard for basic security. “Our experiment found a disturbingly large number of people willing to connect to an open wireless network we created, without any idea of who owned it or whether it was trustworthy, Compounded by the growing number of devices that are permanently identifying themselves via technology like Bluetooth, this kind of behavior is increasingly putting everyone’s valuable data at risk.”

Lyne continued: “This willingness to connect to any wireless network that professes to offer free wi-fi, without ensuring you have some kind of security measures in place, is like shouting your personal or company information out of the nearest window and being surprised when someone abuses it. With a few extra command line arguments, it would have been trivial to attack nearly everyone in our study.”

The open wireless network created during the London experiment also offered an insight into what people are connecting to when they are out and about. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter were high on the list of most requested pages, along with webmail access and news websites. But worryingly, it appears many people are also choosing to access websites and services that could prove even more attractive to cybercriminals:

Despite the fact that this was an open network, once connected many people seemed happy to access online banking sites, even though they had no idea who was running the access point. Only a tiny minority (2 percent) actually took responsibility for their own security by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or forcing secure web standards.

“Our test was conducted strictly within the confines of the law,” explained Lyne, “but the cyber criminals won’t have the same concerns, so our experiment shows why people need to be much more aware of the potential dangers of connecting to open wi-fi networks when they are out and about.”

Details about the methodology used and results so far from the World of Warbiking project – along with tips on how to be more secure – are available here.

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