Have you ever wanted to rid your apartment walls of those unsightly computer wires? If you are living in a dorm, you are probably getting your first taste of what it feels like to be caught in a spider-web built of what EECS majors like to call Cat5 cable. The solution to emerge from this tangled mess is a technology that has exploded into use here and on nearly every college campus. WLAN, 802.11, Wi-Fi, are labels synonymous with what recent Michigan graduate Chad O’Neil simply called “a wireless wire.” O’Neil, an early adopter, began using wireless web here on campus in 2000. “We used it in our old apartment to share a cable modem between two rooms … We couldn’t really have done it without wireless,” he said.

The prevalence of wireless is increasing sharply and demand is driving costs down. Best Buy sold nearly all its wireless inventory during Welcome Week. “We have increased our selection of wireless products. We have even added two new product lines from Belkin and Microsoft since the back-to-school rush,” says Brooke Reinbold, an LSA senior and a Best Buy sales representative in Ann Arbor. “A lot of people don’t want to run long wires, and wireless actually can be cheaper than buying 100 feet of wire,” Reinbold claimed. LSA freshman Catherine Morris said the Telluride House is getting wireless, courtesy of her “Crazy Computer Science major” friend who is providing the labor and expertise. But she wasn’t turned off by the idea. She admitted, “It’s not dorky, and I think it will become more widely used.”

If this all seems too good to be true, it just might be. The ease of connecting to a wireless network may put that network at the mercy of computer hackers. In October, I set out to determine exactly how and where wireless was being used on campus. I used a laptop, GPS and wireless card to map access points near central and north campus. Most APs radiate signals approximately 300 feet in all directions, conveniently right through the windshield of the car used to collect the data shown on the map above.

This research revealed two significant points. First is the incredible prevalence of access points. Nearly 500 access points were located in the vicinity of campus, and most were student-operated. This means there is a good chance your neighbor may be using a wireless network. The second point is that at least 77 percent of these networks have no security. Consequently, the neighbor who doesn’t have a wireless network might be using yours.

LSA Freshman Alexander Sadovsky, co-founder of airhome.net, a company that facilitates wireless installations, said, “I could definitely get internet access from many APs around campus. When a Microsoft representative came to discuss tablet PCs about a week ago, he reported that he was able to get internet access in every coffee shop he entered. I am amazed how many people leave their computers completely vulnerable to attack.” But his concern may translate to excitement for others with less noble intentions (such as that neighbor who is using your wireless).

Despite her attempts at Best Buy to make sure her customers understand the vulnerabilities of wireless, Reinbold feels, “(Students) are not really informed what the risks are, and they won’t be likely to secure their networks until they are victimized.” The problem is that most security breaches go unnoticed and may not cause any visible side-effects.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to keep casual hackers out of personal networks. Wireless hardware includes a built-in security measure called Wired Equivalent Privacy, which scrambles messages sent through the air, rendering ineffective a hacking technique called “sniffing.” Instructions for enabling WEP can be found in the documentation of all wireless equipment. If not used, it is very easy to intercept communications between wireless users and access points. But students aren’t taking the time to enable WEP. Considering that 77 percent of wireless networks on campus do not use WEP, Sadovsky says, “There would be nothing stopping some kid with a laptop and a perchance for disorder to go and wreak havoc on town. I have heard stories of people stealing naked pictures of girlfriends, printing out porn on people’s printers and conducting illegal activities and more from random access points.” But WEP is not perfect – even the founders of Wi-Fi have commented on its ineffectiveness against advanced attacks – so it is important to consider additional security options.

This is not intended to scare students back to prehistoric technological times (like say, 1995?). Look again at this picture. It is arguably a glimpse of something bigger. In the very near future, wireless will be available everywhere on campus. Currently, the University has wireless in the Union, the Business School and the Media Union, and plans exist for expansion elsewhere. Students with laptops will be able to download lecture materials while attending lecture, opening up vast new opportunities for procrastination. There are ideas to create decentralized wireless networks, where data could instantly transmit from one wireless device to another until it is allowed traverse the internet to its ultimate destination. There will be new ways to misuse these new developments, but security will evolve to try to keep up with the threats. It is the responsibility of manufacturers and retailers to inform consumers of the options for security, and it is our responsibility to listen.

So skim through the security section of that little manual that came with your fancy new wireless equipment … before that neighbor turns in your thesis.

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