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ICC misses the mark

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Updated The most comprehensive study of the insecurity of wireless networks in London to date has discovered that 94 per cent are leaving their networks open to drive-by hacking.

This possibly worthwhile survey is undermined by the cyberterrorism FUD spin put on the release.

A seven-month investigation of 5,000 wireless systems was conducted by IT security specialists Digilog, in collaboration with the International Chamber of Commerce's Cybercrime (ICC) Unit, who are using the survey to promote an anti-hacking service.

Wireless networks have a built-in encryption system (WEP), but in nearly all the companies investigated it had not been set up to work securely. Best practice is for firms to plug wireless LANs into virtual private networks in order to provide make sure traffic is securely encrypted.

The ICC Cybercrime Unit says that financial institutions, law firms, media organizations and government offices are among those at risk - and the evidence suggests a similar picture exists in other commercial centres throughout the world.

So far so good; but then Pottengal Mukundan, director of ICC's crime-fighting division, and his partners from Digilog embark on a flight of fancy about the supposed link between drive by hackers and international terrorism.

A statement on the survey 'warns': "And networks are not only at risk from attacks at close-quarters. University research in Hawaii has shown that signals can be intercepted from a distance of over 25 miles, raising fears of large-scale cyber-terrorism [our emphasis]. Computer-controlled power grids, telephone networks and water-treatment plants are at risk."

IT network managers are not always radio engineers, as the release points out, but they know that 2.4GHz (much less 5GHz) signals typically work of a distance measured in metres rather than miles.

The ICC Cybercrime Unit, which is essentially a business focused organisation known for providing useful advice about security matters in the past, has over-steped the mark this time. ®

Updated

Numerous people have emailed us to say that WLANs CAN work over longer distances with the right antenna. This is true.

To clarify. What we said about WLANs operating over distances of metres rather than miles applies to stock omnidirectional antenna. Longer distances, stretching into kilometres, are possible with a small parabolic antenna.

But such antennas are highly directional and require direct line-of-sight to the other transceiver which totally defeats the whole "drive by" hacking concept.

From a “stationary” vantage point you could do some interesting snooping with a dish, pointing it here and there looking for a signal, but that's not particularly easy or clandestine.

The real threat, identified by the study, comes from thrill-seeking hackers with wireless-equipped laptops, or possibly industrial espionage.

There is NO evidence that terrorists harnessing the insecurity of wireless LANs to their nefarious ends. The idea that there’s an Al Queda cell in Watford snooping on wireless traffic from the City of London, contained in the press release, is (we believe) alarmist. After speaking to Simon Gunning from Digilog this morning we’re satisfied that this spin was put on the release by marketing people, not those who conducted the study.

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