September 20, 2010

How Safe is Your Wireless Network?

Cruising around two central Ottawa neighbourhoods in the spring, two of professor Michel Barbeau’s students went on a hunt for unsecured and weakly secured wireless networks.

Their goal wasn’t to hack, but to survey. Wireless security is at the forefront of Barbeau’s research, particularly with his students at Carleton’s Network Research Group in theSchool of Computer Science. So when the results came back—with 50 per cent of the networks in the downtown core and old Ottawa South registering as unsecured or secured using the older WEP protocol—it became an affirmation to Barbeau that the public needs better education about the risks of open networks.

“Some of the networks had no security at all,” he said. “The others used vulnerable methods that can be easily cracked. I’m not sure people realize how open their personal information, like e-mail and banking records, would be under such circumstances.”

Soon enough, business will need to worry as well. In the near future, almost every product you can think of, whether a bar of soap or an iPhone, will be tagged with an electronic product code. A competitor with the right equipment can monitor the scanner signals to get information about the inventory of a grocery store or retail outlet.

The key to solving these problems is to develop more secure wireless networks, which is Barbeau’s main research objective. Barbeau is helping technologists with the development of protocols such as WiMAX. “I’ve pointed out security flaws in the initial design, that have since been fixed afterwards,” he says.  “Our goal is to monitor the evolution of wireless network technologies, uncover security vulnerabilities, and create methods and tools to protect wireless networks and their users from attacks.”

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