Local News

Unsecured Wireless Networks Could Mean Security Problems For Subscribers

Posted July 27, 2005 5:15 a.m. EDT

— These days, it seems that everyone is online. And why not? For a few hundred dollars you can get a laptop computer, lightning-fast Internet service and a way to connect without wires.

But experts say far too many people forget to protect their wireless connection and the risks are too great not to do so.

WRAL scoured one Raleigh neighborhood with computer technician Steve Gray. He set up his laptop to scan for wireless networks that did not have security. In the first five minutes of being in the neighborhood, Gray had already found three networks -- two of them with no encryption at all.

"I had no idea, really didn't believe or just didn't appreciate how many people would be out there with nothing turned on," Gray said.

Here is how Gray did it. Wireless routers send signals in the air. If a person has not secured it, anyone nearby with a wireless network card in a laptop, software and an antenna can use your signal.

As he rode around, Gray found many more unsecured networks, which hackers could use to do serious damage.

"It can be used by our neighbors -- anybody across the street who may be able to access it -- and conduct all kinds of nefarious activities in your name," said Sgt. Gary Hinnant of the Raleigh Police Departments Cyber Crimes Unit.

Some people search for unsecured networks and have no interest in using them. They just like to point out the weakness. It is called "war driving" and it has become sort of a "geek sport" complete with how-to Web sites and message boards.

"There's always that class of people who like the idea of being smarter than everybody else," Gray said.

Nationwide, about 7.5 million people have wireless home networks. At least half lack any basic security measures.

Law enforcement does not worry about war driving to expose security lapses.

"War driving, in and of itself, is not a crime that we are actively investigating," Hinnant said.

But according to the Raleigh Police Department's Cyber Crimes Unit, it is illegal to access someone else's network and use it.

It could also land the unsuspecting subscriber in trouble. If someone gets into an unsecured system and does illegal activities, the subscriber could be held liable.

Experts say to avoid that headache altogether and simply protect your wireless network just like you would protect your home.

In 2003, a Holly Springs man became the first known person in the nation to be convicted of wireless computer hacking. Clayton Dillard said he hacked into medical files to show security weaknesses. Dillard pleaded guilty to computer trespassing after he used his laptop to access patient information from Wake Internal Medicine. He was sentenced to 18 months probation and fined $10,000.