A man recently found a swarm of armed federal agents descending on his Buffalo, New York, home after a neighbor accessed his open Wi-Fi network and used it to download child pornography.
The account, included in a recently published article from the Associated Press, is one of several demonstrating the unintended consequences that come when computer users don't take measures to restrict use of their wireless networks.
A separate man from Sarasota, Florida, the AP said, was similarly raided after someone on a boat docked near his building used a long-range antenna to tap into his internet connection and download “an astounding 1 million images of child porn." And a man from North Syracuse, New York, fell under suspicion of trafficking in illegal videos that were really transmitted by a neighbor.
Even when people try to lock down their networks using WEP, or wired equivalent privacy, their Wi-Fi signals are still under attack. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, authorities in that city have moved to seize a man's car after it was used in a wardriving spree that accessed wireless networks and stole harvested user information.
The 1988 Mercedes sedan contained a long-range antenna and a laptop equipped with software for exploiting weaknesses in WEP that were diagnosed years earlier. The unidentified owner is suspected of belonging to a loose-knit group that has burgled more than $750,000 and often uses information lifted from victims' wireless networks to get a foothold.
“Once a suspect has gained unauthorized access to a wireless network, computers in the vehicle can be used to run programs such as port scanning software and password recovery software designed to breach security on machines within the networks,” police told a court of law.
About 32 percent of people in the US admitted trying to access Wi-Fi networks that didn't belong to them, the AP said, citing a recent poll taken by the Wi-Fi Alliance. About 201 million
American households worldwide use wireless networks to connect to the internet.
Many pundits have pointed to the AP report as a cautionary tale exposing the dangers of running unsecured wireless access points. But this misses the point. Many people like the idea of leaving their networks open so others traveling nearby have a way to pull down email or check directions. It seems just as easy to draw the conclusion that mere use of an IP address shouldn't be grounds for armed police to raid a person's home.
Home and business networks that transmit or store sensitive financial information are another matter entirely, of course. And for those WEP should be avoided in favor of WPA or WPA2. ®