Nonfiction

Spy-Fi: Wireless Intrigue

31 August 2012

The students took their seats and got ready for their electrical engineering lecture. As the ruckus settled, the lecturer stood up and began to drone. All went as planned for the first fifteen minutes. Then the PowerPoint went black.

Words began to appear on the screen, as if typed. They read: “Fuck this. I’m going to the bar.”

The student who pulled this prank at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did it using nothing but the college wireless, his smartphone and the knowledge that he could hack into his lecturer’s laptop.

Hilarious as this might have been, the power of wireless technology—particularly those on mobile devices and laptops—has become formidable. If you have a smartphone, a wireless connection rides around in your pocket every minute of the day. If you have a wireless connection on your laptop, then you have “opened your world”, as one tech company put it. These days you no longer have to search for the ethernet cord connection; instead we have wireless connectivity, a simpler and more prevalent technology with a greater capacity.

If you explained to people in the ’90s that you had the ability to lightly ‘bump’ phones in order to retrieve your phone number, email address, documents, pictures and any other data that could fit on a 32 gigabyte phone, you would have been burnt as a witch. They’d probably laugh at your haircut and jeans as well: “That was so last decade, man!” Regardless, you are walking around with a magic brick of awesome and untold interweb power.

But be warned. Wireless connections and networks, like any technology, have a dark side.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith and his entire delegation left all their electronic devices behind them when they visited China in June. The decision was made due to a fear they would be compromised by wireless espionage, something that previous groups have been victim to. This measure is not uncommon when other states and business groups, particularly those carrying sensitive information, travel to China. After all, China is believed to be the home of one of the largest state-funded hacking ‘armies’.

McAfee, an American-based anti-virus and computer-security company, views these types of attacks as normal for countries like China. Last year, when McAfee uncovered widespread cyber espionage stretching from the UN to private corporations, they believed that China was responsible.

And what was the main way source software invaded the victims’ computers? Wireless networking.

There was no surprise when the latest and greatest from the cyber-espionage world exploited the same vulnerability. Flame, the recently discovered cyber-espionage tool, can easily be transferred between computers and devices through in-built wireless connectivity. Kapersky Lab, the Jackie Chan-endorsed Russian computer-security company, discovered the tool earlier this year and believes it is the most sophisticated piece of wireless spyware yet.

Yet this ‘virus’ isn’t going to give your hardware a malfunction. Instead it will use your own webcam, microphone and wireless connections autonomously to spy on you. Although you probably shouldn’t worry too much about it, unless you’re currently working in a nuclear facility in Iran.

It is currently believed that this was a state-created piece of software that specifically utilised wireless connectivity as the undetectable and indirect method of infecting other devices. More worrying is that Flame is believed to be a couple of years out of date.

Mr. Smith’s caution around his phone becoming a fully functioning listening device can therefore explain why the Words With Friends game he was playing could wait. But where there are governments toying around with scary technology, there is bound to be students with a what-could-go-wrong attitude who start messing around with it.

More recently, a group of University of Texas students were able to hack a US homeland-security drone, a piece of hardware similar to those used by the US military in targeting, surveillance and launching strikes in the field. Armed only with equipment that they bought from RadioShack, the students were able to take control of the drone and send it into a nose dive. This came only months after an Iranian military engineer brought down a US Army drone.

The Department of Homeland Security is looking to use thousands of these drones in US airspace as a counter-surveillance measure. The students believe these drones, if hacked, could be used as remote-controlled missiles against domestic aircraft. For science, obviously.

If you’re wondering how you can get your very own radio-controlled drone, have no fear. In May this year Victoria Police unveiled plans to implement drones in a similar capacity to the US. As for me, I’m staying indoors this Prosh week.

While this world of international espionage may not be on the average student’s list of things to worry about, connectivity issues have spread to a more mundane level. In April 2010 it was discovered that Google had been collecting wireless data through its Street View cars. It had managed to collect data on wireless points so as to pin point them for users on Street View. However, Google ended up pulling far more data than they even realised, logging any information sent over networks that were unprotected. Users feared that the company had access to bank details, usernames and passwords, and web histories. Yeah, web histories. The most worrying part is that neither the owners nor Google were aware of the wireless transaction.

Wireless connectivity allows a free flow of information, images and ideas instantaneously. It has created an invisible web of links between computers, devices and software, meaning you can do many things on the move that otherwise would have had you at a desk. But it is important to remember it is a two-way information highway. When you gaze long into the Wi-Fi connection the Wi-Fi connection also gazes into you.


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