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February 9, 2014

How hackable is your wireless network router?

NORMAN — Most everyone these days uses some sort of wireless network to distribute an Internet connection around their house or business to multiple devices. Most people also know they should password-protect their wireless network to keep away unwanted guests.

But, what if there is something wrong with the wireless router, itself? What if it is flawed in a way that all the passwords in the world won’t protect?

In early December 2011, reports began to surface about a fundamental flaw that had been revealed in some of the most commonly used wireless routers found in millions of homes and businesses around the world.

This flaw, called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), allows any bad guy with a semi-fast computer and half an ounce of brains to hack right into a wireless network, steal its password, sign right in and set up shop.

Not all wireless routers have the problem, and some can actually be fixed. For some, the fix simply involves changing a setting in the routers’ internal configuration.

Some can be fixed by downloading and installing new “firmware,” available from the manufacturer, a process akin to installing a new operating system. Some can be fixed by installing firmware made by independent, third-party programmers.

In all cases, the “fix” results in some way of turning off the flawed WPS capability.

WPS was originally designed as an easy way for technically challenged folks to set up their own “secure” wireless network.

Instead of having to fiddle about with obscure things called WPA2-PSK AES, Joe Sixpack could just push a button, type in a four-digit PIN code from the sticker on the bottom of the router and, suddenly, easily, “with the push of a button,” his wireless network was secure. Except, it wasn’t.

It wasn’t until the WPS flaw was fully revealed by a humble researcher named Stefan Viehboch that the major wireless router manufacturers had their “Oh, no. Duh!” moment and realized that protecting a secure wireless network with a four-digit PIN number is like protecting Fort Knox with a trillion-dollar vault door on the front but a two-dollar padlock on the back.

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