Wi-Fi Wrought With Dangers

Gretchen Gallen
TORONTO, Canada – On the heels of one of the first-ever Wi-Fi child porn arrests in history, Toronto police are reeling from the consequences of what could be the tip of the iceberg of a new wave of child porn arrests, in addition to legal and security issues related to this relatively new technology.

The case that is serving as a gateway to larger issues related to Wi-Fi, short for wireless fidelity or IEEE 802.11b, involve a man who was arrested for downloading child porn from a Wi-Fi network while driving naked down a one-way street.

According to investigators, the child porn material was being streamed over a residential wireless hot spot or node, which can be tapped into from a laptop or mobile device for instantaneous Internet access at 11 megabits per second.

Wi-Fi base stations, or hot spots, can typically be accessed from a 300-foot radius by remote users.

The first-of-its kind case resulted in charges of theft of telecommunications, as well as possession, distribution, and the creation of child pornography.

The police have since recognized a growing trend among child predators who are making use of this leading-edge form of wireless technology. The suspect was engaged in what is being called "War Driving," which involves tapping into other people's networks using a Wi-Fi equipped laptop with a wireless LAN card and knowledge of network access points.

According to CNET, earlier this year, three men were arrested and charged with stealing credit card information from a Lowe's store after tapping into the store's wireless network from a parking lot.

The Toronto police have issued alerts to homes and businesses using unsecured networks, but the issue is admittedly larger and War Driving poses a serious threat to unsecured wireless hot spots in the home or office.

As new technologies emerge, so do new sets of laws and regulations, and legal experts are now predicting that a day may soon come when people who run open Wi-Fi hubs could conceivably be held accountable for activities carried out on their networks by unauthorized users.

And while wireless fans have long known that Wi-Fi comes hand-in-hand with network vulnerability, authorities are saying that unless an operator of a Wi-Fi hot spot takes concerted steps to install network security protocols and prevent unauthorized users from access, then they could possibly be held liable in situations involving child porn, terrorism, and other types of illegal Internet trade.

According to CNET, Internet Service Providers have so far been let off the hook when it comes to the illegal activities of their users, especially in cases involving file sharing and piracy, however there are no laws yet in place that will extend that same immunity to Wi-Fi operators.

"Still, the providers might find themselves on the wrong side of the law in some cases--for example, if they refuse to secure their network after repeated attacks," stated CNET's Richard Shim. But at present, the development of the technology and the protection of the technology are not yet in sync.

The plot will only thicken, says CNET, as increasing numbers of users gain unauthorized access to wireless networks to launch spam attacks, distribute viruses, or steal files from other user's computers.

"In all these cases, it would look like the owner of the connection had performed the acts," continued Shim. "As the popularity of wireless local-area networking gear grows for small businesses and consumers, break-ins on unsecured networks are likely to become more common and increasingly involve criminal activity," stated Shims.

In the case of War Driving, a surprisingly high number of hot spot operators have not taken the simple steps of installing network security.

Wi-Fi standards groups are throwing their support at a new security protocol called Wi-Fi Protected Access that improves significantly upon current Wi-Fi default security settings.

Additionally, a new security standard known as 80211i is slated for release around the middle of the next year that will come with tougher encryption standards and will make it more difficult for unauthorized users to tap into a wireless network.

In the meantime, Wi-Fi shipments are expected to reach 9.8 million units this year and 47.4 million units by 2007, according to research firm Synergy Research Group.