What happened to Malcolm Riddell should not happen to anyone — but it can and does, and that's the cautionary tale shared by the Florida man, whose garden-variety wireless Internet signal was "stolen" by a criminal to distribute his library of more than 10 million child pornography photographs.
When a dozen FBI agents came knocking on Riddell's door, they thought he was the bad guy. In fact, as NBC's Kerry Sanders reports (see video below), it was another man, Mark Brown, they were after — and ultimately arrested — who hijacked Riddell's Wi-Fi signal.
Riddell lives in a 12th-floor condo in Sarasota, and Brown apparently was able to steal Riddell's signal from out in the nearby marina, the equivalent of more than two blocks away.
Why? Riddell, like many Wi-Fi users, did not use password-protection for his wireless Internet access, and became vulnerable to the perils of "wardriving." Wardriving commonly involves someone driving around in a car with a laptop and antenna to find and access, perhaps exploit, a wireless computer. But in Riddell's case, the "wardriving" was done from a boat.
The ease of such an intrusion was shown by Sanders, driving around Pittsburgh with FBI agent Tom Grasso who used a Pringles can — yes, a Pringles can —as an antenna.
"In just 30 minutes, we picked up 1,524 wireless signals, a quarter of them with no password protection at all," said Sanders.
Making it more difficult is that if your signal is "stolen," "you're not going to see it, you're not going to notice any unusual activity on your computer; it's going to very hard for you to detect," Grasso said.
The first thing you can do to protect yourself is make your home wireless network password-enabled. Many wireless users are so happy just to get a Wi-Fi network up and running that they don't bother setting up a password.
"Many who purchase wireless routers don't realize that their network is open until you enable security — meaning that anyone in the area can gain access to your Wi-Fi signal and the devices logged on to it," says the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group. "Turn on the security features of your network and consider installing a commercially available firewall."
Here are some other tips about using Wi-Fi from the alliance:
Configure for approved connections: Many devices sense and automatically connect to any available wireless signal. To regain control, simply configure your device to not automatically connect to an open network without your approval.
Disable sharing: Your Wi-Fi enabled devices may automatically open themselves to sharing / connecting with other devices. File and printer sharing may be common in business and home networks, but you can avoid this in public networks.
Install anti-virus software: When connecting at home or at work, it's safe to assume that the other computers on those networks are protected against viruses. When using a public hot spot you have no such assurance, which makes it more important to have antivirus software installed.
Use a personal firewall: When connecting to a public hot spot, you are joining a network with other unknown computers, which can increases your exposure to unwanted risks To protect yourself , run a personal firewall program, which are easy to install and in some cases free.
Change your password around every once in awhile: "Periodically changing the passphrase on your network also increases security," the alliance says.
And, when you are using free, public Wi-Fi, for example, at an airport or hotel lobby, those "hotspots are by nature 'open' and unencrypted," the alliance says. To reduce your exposure when you use free public Wi-Fi, the alliance advises:
• Make sure that you are connecting to a legitimate hotspot — those that require a password have more protection than those that do not.
• Use a virtual private network or VPN, which establishes a private connection across the public network. This may be supplied by your employer, or you can purchase one.
• Surfing the Web and sending e-mail is fine, but doing your banking for example in a public hotspot is not advised.
More about security and your digital life:
- Spring clean your digital mess
- Student: My principal made me delete Facebook posts
- How to scare away laptop thieves using video chat