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Words of Advice Before You Use a Wireless Network Again

Part one of a three-part story.
When You Learn How Hackers Use Free Wi-Fi, You

A recent firsthand investigative report showed just how easy it is for a hacker to go to a coffee shop or airport, tap into the wireless network (like everyone else), and begin collecting information off the laptops and smartphones of people around him. This happened in real time, in broad daylight. And it can happen to you at any time you're connected to a wireless network and a local hacker decides to sit down nearby and monitor the Internet activity.

In this case, the hacker ("Mr. H.") agreed to demonstrate to a reporter how easy it is to eavesdrop on the Internet activity of innocent, unsuspecting victims. Fortunately, the hacker agreed not to do any kind of damage—he was simply showing off his skills and helping to educate readers (eventually) on the ease of hacking a wireless network.

Here's what they witnessed.

A hacker in action.

On a sunny Saturday, the reporter and Mr. H. drop into a cafe that is crowded and has a wireless network. Of course, just about everyone under 35 is online with their laptop or smartphone...checking websites, sending emails and updating their social media pages.

Mr. H. is soon online too, and in less than half an hour, he has a profile on most of the people in the cafe. He claims to know where they were born, where they went to school, and even the subjects of the last half-dozen Google searches they did.

How does he do it? Ah, that's the hacker's secret, and Mr. H. let the reporter peek into his bag of tricks. In his backpack, Mr. H. has a small black Internet device, about the size of a deck of cards...and it has an antenna.

Mr. H. gets to work, starting off by simply blending in. He brings out his laptop and the black device, turning both on, but conceals the black device under a napkin. While he's ordering a cappuccino, he asks the waiter for the password to the wireless network.

While people around him are opening word processing programs and Web browsers, Mr. H. launches his own special programs, and in a few short minutes, he has some very interesting information popping up onscreen. Using his devices and special programs, Mr. H. has already managed to view the messages coming from the laptops, smartphones and tablets of the people around him...who are all on the same wireless network.

On Mr. H.'s computer screen, names such as "iPhone SteveL" and "ChrisMacBook" begin to appear. That's because he has intercepted the signals that are being sent directly from Steve L.'s actual laptop, Chris's actual MacBook and all the other devices around the room.

Mr. H. is just getting started. Not only can he see the names of the connected devices—he can also see online conversations and activity in real time, as well as the names of the Wi-Fi networks people had been connected to earlier in the day. With a little imagination, he can almost connect the dots and figure out what the people have done that day.

For instance, according to one cafe patron's network history, he'd been online at a fast-food chain not too far away. He had also been at an international airport, logged in to a network of a major airline carrier, which means he was likely an out-of-towner. Finally, his network history revealed connections at a local hotel and a local tavern.

You can see how a hacker can put together a profile of someone—maybe you—in just a matter of minutes, with nothing more than prying Internet eyes, the right technology and a little know-how.

And how is our hacker doing? It's about to get interesting...because the waiter brings Mr. H. the password for the wireless network. And once he has that, he's going to take his hacking to the next level.

You can read about it in the next installment...

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