Do you think leaving your home Wifi connection wide open is no big deal? If you do, you could be playing right into the hands of war drivers out to steal your personal information and your identity, according law enforcement officials from Atlanta to Queensland, Australia.
WSB-TV Channel 2 in Atlanta recently reported that a war driver, armed with nothing but a laptop, an antenna and widely available software, parked his car in affluent metro Atlanta neighborhoods searching for unsecure home Wifi connections. After locating them, he hacked into the Wifi networks of at least two dozen people. Then he used the information on their computers to take over their existing credit card accounts and open new ones – committing identity fraud totaling at least $350,000.
According to WSB-TV, most of the victims were seniors from three counties in Georgia. One victim realized there was a problem when he received an American Express card in the mail that he hadn’t requested and learned that another one had been sent to a different address. Police said they can also prove that 25-year-old Justin Walker, who was charged with ID fraud and computer trespassing, purchased airline tickets in six other states during his online crime spree.
Google’s Wardriving Was No Mistake
But war driving isn’t always done by a lone hacker who hits the streets searching for open Wifi connections. And it isn’t always illegal, even when war drivers collect your personal information and invade your privacy. This spring, a report by the FCC found that, between 2007 and 2010, Google’s Street View cars collected payload data from unsuspecting citizens around the world who had unsecured Wifi connections – including email and text messages, passwords, Internet use history and other highly personal information. Google originally denied collecting the data. But later it claimed that it was a mistake – the work of a rogue engineer operating without the company’s authorization.
The New York Times identified the engineer that Google accused of masterminding the data collection as Marius Milner. Interestingly, Milner is the same engineer who created NetStumbler, popular Wifi detection software that’s also used for war driving. The Times reported that Milner’s LinkedIn profile occupation was listed as “hacker.” Under the social network’s specialties category he said, “I know more than I want to about Wi-Fi.”
The FCC didn’t buy Google’s claim that its drive-by Wifi data collection was a mistake. The Commission found the documents it received showed that Google’s Street View Wifi data collection resulted from “a deliberate software design-decision” that was not the act of a single rogue engineer. It was a program that a senior manager and at least seven other engineers knew about.
The FCC stopped short of saying that Google violated any laws. But it fined the company $25,000 for obstructing its investigation. Google denied that charge and reiterated that it did nothing illegal when it collected consumers’ unencrypted Wifi payload data. But that wasn’t good enough for Congressmen Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) and John Barrow (D-GA). After the FCC’s revelations about Google harvesting mountains of unencrypted Wifi data, they asked the Department of Justice to consider reopening its investigation to assess whether the company did, in fact, violate the law. Meanwhile Germany and the UK are looking into reopening their own investigations of Google.
Police Down Under Go on Wardriving Missions to Stop ID Theft
Back in 2010, when Google’s Street View cars were also found to be collecting unencrypted Wifi information in Australia, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy claimed the company’s actions constituted “the largest privacy breach in the history of Western democracies.” But unlike other Western nations, Australia made a pre-emptive strike against war drivers – launching a war driving project of its own. This spring, the Queensland Police Department began cruising the streets searching for unsecure Wifi connections. Detective Superintendent Brian Hay said in a statement that police spotted lots of open connections; and users who leave WiFi open might as well put their bank account information, passwords and other personal details on a billboard on the side of the highway.
When the Queensland police located unsecure Wifi networks, they followed up with a mailbox drop in the targeted areas instructing Wifi users how to effectively secure their networks. The lesson of the War Driving Project is critical: We’re responsible for our own wireless network security.
How to Stop War Drivers in Their Tracks
Both the FBI and the FTC recommend changing the default identification and the administrative password on your wireless router. Creating a long strong password of letters, numbers and symbols and using WPA or WPA2 security are important your online privacy.
Using a virtual private network solution like PRIVATE WiFi™ protects you from cybercrime whether you’re at home or at a hotspot. VPNs encrypt the information traveling to and from your computer. That means it’s hidden from hackers every time you go online.