Secret Service Undertakes Effort to Sniff Out Unsecured Wireless LANs

The U.S. Secret Service has hooked up Pringles potato chip cans to notebook computers equipped with wireless LAN access cards and begun "war driving" around Washington and other cities in an effort to sniff out unsecured wireless LANs.

That puts the Secret Service, whose primary mission is to guard the president, in the company of hobbyist war drivers who cruise localities around the world to detect and map unsecured wireless LAN systems.

Brian Marr, a Secret Service spokesman, said the agency conducts its war drives as part of its protective mission and is searching for unsecured wireless LAN systems in venues in close proximity to its protective assignments, including hospitals, convention centers and hotels. Besides Pringles cans -- which Marr said make "fairly good" antennas -- Secret Service agents also use commercial high-gain antennas to sniff out unsecured LANs.

When the agents from the Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force detect an unsecure wireless LAN, they contact the entity operating the system, identify themselves and inform the business of any vulnerabilities they have detected.

Sarosh Vesuna, chairman of the technical committee for the Wi-Fi Alliance (formerly the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) in Mountain View, Calif., sees the Secret Service war-driving effort as a good idea. "It raises the bar for security," he said.

Vesuna, who is also director of strategic alliances at Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., said the Secret Service war-driving and notification project is the electronic version of a police officer "telling someone their door is unlocked."

John Pescatore, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., worked for the Secret Service in the 1980s developing secure communications and surveillance electronics systems. Pescatore said he views the agency's war-driving exploits partly as bureaucratic positioning before the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, which will subsume many cybersecurity functions. Pescatore said the Secret Service may have decided to conduct war-driving operations now as a "preemptive strike" against the FBI, before that agency comes up with the idea and the mission.

Pescatore said that while it's a good idea to ensure the security of the networks used by hospitals that could treat the president, he finds it hard to understand why sniffing for unsecured wireless LANs would have much of a priority in today's heightened security environment. "They must have something more important to do," he said.

Since the Secret Service is sniffing the airwaves on an informational basis without a warrant -- which the agency would need if it were investigating a crime -- Pescatore also raised the issue of whether this would provide hobbyists who do the same thing with some legal armor.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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