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Growth of Wireless Internet Opens New Path for Thieves

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New York Times
March 19, 2005

Growth of Wireless Internet Opens New Path for Thieves

The spread of the wireless data technology known as Wi-Fi has reshaped
the way millions of Americans go online, letting them tap into
high-speed Internet connections effortlessly at home and in many public

But every convenience has its cost. Federal and state law enforcement
officials say sophisticated criminals have begun to use the unsecured
Wi-Fi networks of unsuspecting consumers and businesses to help cover
their tracks in cyberspace.

In the wired world, it was often difficult for lawbreakers to make
themselves untraceable on the Internet. In the wireless world, with
scores of open Wi-Fi networks in some neighborhoods, it could hardly be

Law enforcement officials warn that such connections are being
commandeered for child pornography, fraud, death threats and identity
and credit card theft.

"We have known for a long time that the criminal use of the Internet
was progressing at a greater rate than law enforcement had the
knowledge or ability to catch up," said Jan H. Gilhooly, who retired
last month as special agent in charge of the Secret Service field
office in Newark and now helps coordinate New Jersey operations for the
Department of Homeland Security. "Now it's the same with the wireless

In 2003, the Secret Service office in Newark began an investigation
that infiltrated the Web sites and computer networks of suspected
professional data thieves. Since October, more than 30 people around
the world have been arrested in connection with the operation and
accused of trafficking in hundreds of thousands of stolen credit card
numbers online.

Of those suspects, half regularly used the open Wi-Fi connections of
unsuspecting neighbors. Four suspects, in Canada, California and
Florida, were logged in to neighbors' Wi-Fi networks at the moment law
enforcement agents, having tracked them by other means, entered their
homes and arrested them, Secret Service agents involved in the case

More than 10 million homes in the United States now have a Wi-Fi base
station providing a wireless Internet connection, according to ABI, a
technology research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y. There were essentially
none as recently as 2000, the firm said. Those base stations, or
routers, allow several computers to share a high-speed Internet
connection and let users maintain that connection as they move about
with laptops or other mobile devices. The routers are also used to
connect computers with printers and other devices.

Experts say most of those households never turn on any of the features,
available in almost all Wi-Fi routers, that change the system's default
settings, conceal the connection from others and encrypt the data sent
over it. Failure to secure the network in those ways can allow anyone
with a Wi-Fi-enabled computer within about 200 feet to tap into the
base station's Internet connection, typically a digital subscriber line
or a cable modem.

Wi-Fi connections are also popping up in retail locations across the
country. But while national chains like Starbucks take steps to protect
their networks, independent coffee shops that offer Wi-Fi often leave
their connections wide open, law enforcement officials say.

In addition, many universities are now blanketing campuses with open
Wi-Fi networks, and dozens of cities and towns are creating wireless
grids. While some locations charge a fee or otherwise force users to
register, others leave the network open. All that is needed to tap in
is a Wi-Fi card, typically costing $30 or less, for the user's PC or
laptop. (Wi-Fi cards contain an identification code that is potentially
traceable, but that information is not retained by most consumer
routers, and the cards can in any case be readily removed and thrown

When criminals operate online through a Wi-Fi network, law enforcement
agents can track their activity to the numeric Internet Protocol
address corresponding to that connection. But from there the trail may
go cold, in the case of a public network, or lead to an innocent owner
of a wireless home network.

"We had this whole network set up to identify these guys, but the one
thing we had to take into consideration was Wi-Fi," Mr. Gilhooly said.
"If I get to an Internet address and I send a subpoena to the Internet
provider and it gets me a name and physical address, how do I know that
that person isn't actually bouncing in from next door?"

Mr. Gilhooly said the possibility of crashing into an innocent person's
home forced his team to spend additional time conducting in-person
surveillance before making arrests. He said the suspects tracked in his
investigation would regularly advise one another on the best ways to
gain access to unsecured Wi-Fi systems.

"We intercepted their private conversations, and they would talk and
brag about, 'Oh yeah, I just got a new amplifier and a new antenna and
I can reach a quarter of a mile,' " he said. "Hotels are wide open.
Universities, wide open."

Sometimes, suspected criminals using Wi-Fi do not get out of their car.
At 5 a.m. one day in November 2003, the Toronto police spotted a
wrong-way driver "with a laptop on the passenger seat showing a child
pornography movie that he had downloaded using the wireless connection
in a nearby house," said Detective Sgt. Paul Gillespie, an officer in
the police sex crimes unit.

The suspect was charged with child pornography violations in addition
to theft of telecommunications services; the case is pending. "The No.
1 challenge is that people are committing all sorts of criminal
activity over the Internet using wireless, and it could trace back to
somebody else," Sergeant Gillespie said.

Holly L. Hubert, the supervisory special agent in charge of the Cyber
Task Force at the F.B.I. field office in Buffalo, said the use of Wi-Fi
was making it much more difficult to track down online criminals.

"This happens all the time, and it's definitely a challenge for us,"
she said. "We'll track something to a particular Internet Protocol
address and it could be an unsuspecting business or home network that's
been invaded. Oftentimes these are a dead end for us."

Ms. Hubert says one group of hackers she has been tracking has
regularly frequented a local chain of Wi-Fi-equipped tea and coffee
shops to help cover its tracks.

Many times the suspects can find a choice of unsecured wireless
networks right from home. Special Agent Bob Breeden, supervisor of the
computer crime division for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,
said a fraud investigation led in December to the arrest of a
Tallahassee man who had used two Wi-Fi networks set up by residents in
his apartment complex.

Over those Internet connections, the suspect used the electronic
routing information for a local college's bank account to pay for
online pornography and to order sex-related products, Mr. Breeden said.
The man was caught because he had the products delivered to his actual
address, Mr. Breeden said. When officers went to arrest him, they found
his computer set up to connect to a neighbor's wireless network. Mr.
Breeden said the suspect, Abdul G. Wattley, pleaded guilty to charges
of theft and unauthorized use of a communications network and was
sentenced to two years' probation.

In another recent case, the principal of a Tallahassee high school had
received death threats by e-mail, Mr. Breeden said. When authorities
traced the messages to a certain Internet Protocol address and went to
the household it corresponded to, Mr. Breeden said, "Dad has his laptop
sitting on a table and Mom has another laptop, and of course they have
Wi-Fi, and they clearly didn't know anything about the threats."

Cybercrime has been known to flourish even without Wi-Fi's cloak of
anonymity; no such link has been found, for example, in recent data
thefts from ChoicePoint, Lexis/Nexis and other database companies.

But unsecured wireless networks are nonetheless being looked at by the
authorities as a potential tool for furtive activities of many sorts,
including terrorism. Two federal law enforcement officials said on
condition of anonymity that while they were not aware of specific
cases, they believed that sophisticated terrorists might also be
starting to exploit unsecured Wi-Fi connections.

In the end, prevention is largely in the hands of the buyers and
sellers of Wi-Fi equipment. Michael Coe, a spokesman for SBC, the
nation's No. 1 provider of digital subscriber line connections, said
the company had provided about one million Wi-Fi routers to its
customers with encryption turned on by default. But experts say most
consumers who spend the $60 to $80 for a Wi-Fi router are just happy to
make it work at all, and never turn on encryption.

"To some degree, most consumers are intimidated by the technology,"
said Roberta Wiggins, a wireless analyst at the Yankee Group, a
technology research firm in Boston. "There is a behavior that they
don't want to further complicate their options."

That attitude makes life easier for tech-savvy criminals and tougher
for those who pursue them. "The public needs to realize that all
they're doing is making it harder on me to go find the bad guys," said
Mr. Gilhooly, the former Secret Service agent. "How would you feel if
you're sitting at home and meanwhile someone is using your Wi-Fi to
hack a bank or hack a company and downloads a million credit card
numbers, which happens all the time? I come to you and knock on your
door, and all you can say is, 'Oops.' "

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