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Wi-Fi computer virus goes ‘airborne’ like common cold

Published time: February 26, 2014 20:25
Edited time: February 27, 2014 04:20
Reuters / Keith Bedford

Reuters / Keith Bedford

Researchers in Britain have shown for the first time how a computer virus can spread through Wi-Fi “as efficiently as the common cold spreads between humans.” The 'Chameleon’ Wi-Fi AP-AP virus infiltrates dense networks and spreads at an alarming rate.

Chameleon was designed by a team of researchers from the University of Liverpool, and displayed a ‘remarkable amount of intelligence’ in its capacity to spread in a similar way to the common cold.

The virus “was able to avoid detection and identify the points at which Wi-Fi access is least protected by encryption and passwords,” according to a release published on the university’s website. The areas which are generally ‘least protected’ are public access points – such as free Wi-Fi in cafes and airports.

Network Security Professor, Alan Marshall, stated that the virus doesn’t attempt to damage existing networks but instead infiltrates the data of all users connected to a network via Wi-Fi .

“WiFi connections are increasingly a target for computer hackers because of well-documented security vulnerabilities, which make it difficult to detect and defend against a virus,” said Marshall.

“It was assumed, however, that it wasn’t possible to develop a virus that could attack Wi-Fi networks but we demonstrated that this is possible and that it can spread quickly. We are now able to use the data generated from this study to develop a new technique to identify when an attack is likely,” he added.

Chameleon’s success lies in the means by which it avoids detection – the majority of anti-virus software packages looks for infections which are present on computers and the Internet, rather than publicly-used Wi-Fi networks.

“When Chameleon attacked an AP (access point) it didn’t affect how it worked, but was able to collect and report the credentials of all other Wi-Fi users who connected to it. The virus then sought out other Wi-Fi APs that it could connect to and infect,” Marshall said. That the virus doesn’t disrupt the network itself, but instead those connecting to it, makes it all the more subversive and dangerous.

The virus was found to travel the most quickly between access points which were within a distance of 160 feet, prompting the ‘common cold’ comparison.

“As demand drives up the availability and use of WiFi, the geographical area that an attack can exploit increases exponentially,” the study noted.

There are plans in place to examine the data generated by the study “to develop a new technique to identify when an attack is likely,” according to Marshall.