A Wi-Fi virus outbreak? Researchers say it’s possible (Dense urban areas especially susceptible).

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If criminals were to target unsecured wireless routers, they could
create an attack that could piggyback across thousands of Wi-Fi
networks in urban areas like Chicago or New York, according to
researchers at Indiana University.

The researchers estimate that a Wi-Fi attack could take over 20,000
wireless routers in New York within a two-week period, with most of
the infections occurring within the first day.

“The issue is that most of these routers are installed out of the box
very insecurely,” said Steven Myers, an assistant professor at Indiana
University who published the paper in November, along with researchers
from the Institute for Scientific Interchange in Torino, Italy.

The researchers theorize the attack would work by guessing
administrative passwords and then instructing the routers to install
new worm-like firmware that would in turn cause the infected router to
attack other devices in its range.

Because there are so many closely connected Wi-Fi networks in most
urban areas, the attack could hop from router to router for many miles
in some cities.

The team used what is known as the Susceptible Infected Removed (SIR)
model to track the growth of such an attack. The methodology is
typically used to estimate the scale of events like influenza
outbreaks, but it has also been used to predict computer virus
infections, Myers said.

Although the researchers did not develop the attack code that would be
used to carry out this type of infection, they believe it would be
possible to write code that guessed default passwords by first
entering the default administrative passwords that shipped with the
routers, and then trying a list of 1 million commonly used passwords,
one after the other. They said 36% of passwords can be guessed using
this technique.

Even some routers that use encryption could be cracked, if they use
the popular WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) algorithm, which security
experts have been able to crack for years. Routers that are encrypted
using the more secure WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) standard are
considered impossible to infect, Myers said.

Myers’ model is based on data compiled from the Wireless Geographic
Logging Engine (WiGLE), a volunteer-run effort to map Wi-Fi networks
around the world. WiGLE has more than 10 million networks in its

Using this data, researchers were able to map out large networks made
out of Wi-Fi routers that were each no more than 45 meters (49 yards)
from the network — in other words, close enough for an infection to
spread. The largest such network, in New York, included 36,807
systems; in Boston, it was 15,899; and in Chicago, 50,084.

Because New York is such a dense city with a relatively low percentage
(25.8%, according to the researchers) of encrypted routers, it was
particularly susceptible to this type of attack. San Francisco, where
40.1% of routers are encrypted and there is a lower density of
routers, was less susceptible.

Myers said that because the attack would be technically complex, he
doubted that criminals would attempt it any time soon. There are
simply too many other, easier ways to take over computers, he said.

Still, he said hardware makers should take note: “The bigger point for
developers and people making wireless information technology is to
realize that there are serious security issues.”

About Faisal Ebrahim

Tech enthusiast, IT & Cybersecurity consultant & Sales manager. I'm passionate about staying ahead of the curve on emerging technologies, including EVs, AI, robotics, and the metaverse. For over 15 years, I've explored and shared these innovations on my blog, itechbahrain.com.

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