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Cyber-security expert’s experiment shows Wi-Fi users in Las Vegas vulnerable to hacking

Sophos Goes Warbiking in Las Vegas

Steve Marcus

James Lyne, global head of security research at Sophos, goes “war biking” on the Las Vegas Strip Monday, May 5, 2014. His bicycle is equipped with a scanner and computer that can detect Wi-Fi networks. Sophos is a British-based Internet security company.

Sophos Goes Warbiking in Las Vegas

James Lyne, global head of security research at Sophos, poses before going Launch slideshow »

James Lyne calls his road bike “The Beast,” and he’s brought it to Las Vegas to find out just how vulnerable wireless networks in the city and their users are to hackers.

The bike’s thin titanium frame is strapped with three wireless scanners, a basic minicomputer slightly bigger than a deck of cards, a GPS unit and a battery pack to charge it all.

Using this equipment, Lyne is able to track how secure a person’s wireless network is, set up false hotspots and see what people are searching – all in a single bike ride. Lyne is a cyber security expert for Sophos, a British computer security firm, and has traveled to cities around the world scanning for unsecure wireless networks on “The Beast.” He calls it “warbiking” and “The Beast” is his chariot.

“What it says to me is if society can’t get something as simple as wireless right, what hope do we have for the more complex security issues?” Lyne said during an interview Monday. “I wanted to show the world in a direct way that we have to do better.”

Lyne started warbiking in London and has done it in San Francisco, Barcelona and now Las Vegas.

His study is designed to examine how people are securing their wireless networks, how much information people walking on the street are giving away from mobile devices and how they behave online.

Lyne took “The Beast” to the street Friday in Las Vegas. Starting on the Strip, he pedaled 25 miles through Las Vegas, picking up about 56,200 Wi-Fi networks.

Lyne said wireless networks throughout the city did a good job upgrading from using WEP security, which he said was an easily broken encryption network.

But he also found that nearly half the users accessing the Internet on an open network did so with no encryptions. Without any encryption, even the most inexperienced hackers can access an online user’s bank accounts, capture private information and upload viruses. It’s like shouting out personal bank account numbers and passwords at a café and being shocked that other people steal them, Lyne said.

During his ride, Lyne also set up three free separate Wi-Fi hotspots. About 4,000 people signed on, ignoring the terms of use, which specified the user was consenting to have the sites they visited tracked. The experiment was designed to replicate how easy it would be for a hacker to access people’s computers or smartphones and direct them to false websites to obtain personal information.

As in his previous experiments, the results from Lyne’s warbiking in Las Vegas showed people and Wi-Fi networks here aren’t taking security precautions they need. (Lyne destroys all personal user login data he collects.)

In a world where everything from computers to refrigerators is being connected to the Internet, Lyne has found that people have never been more vulnerable to a cyber attack.

“We are swimming in Wi-Fi and more convenience technology,” Lyne said. “It’s only going to get more pervasive in our everyday lives… but we are opening ourselves up more and more to give cyber criminals power over our lives.”

To avoid being hacked, he recommends people sign up for a virtual private network encryption that protects their computer on any Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, small businesses and local Wi-Fi routers can be installed to have WPA2 encryption to protect it from hackers.

Still, Lyne said the gulf between cyber security standards and the growth of wireless networks is expanding at a rapid rate.

It’s a global problem, and he said he planned to present the information to the United Nations to try to change cyber security standards.

Until then, the warbiking rolls on for Lyne and "The Beast."

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