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Metromesh Security: Strix Strikes Back

Well-designed mesh networks are secure

Properly designed WiFi metropolitan mesh networks will be secure, according to Nan Chen, VP of marketing at wireless LAN mesh company Strix Systems. But he says the public will still need schoolin' on how to stay safe on free public access services that don't feature authentication or encryption.

Chen wrote to us late last night with a response to our Unstrung story this week about the possibility of citywide mesh networks being hacked. He emailed us a comprehensive reply to security consultant Shawn Merdinger's thoughts on mesh security, which was the catalyst for the original story. (See Metro-Mesh: A Hacker's Paradise?)

Here's a good chunk of what the telecom bubble survivor had to say about security in this emerging marketplace (with Merdinger's original points in boldface):

Hackers will use cheap wireless access points to launch spoofing attacks against metromesh WiFi.

This is absolutely true, although it's not really any more true today with the emergence of metro WiFi networks than it has ever been. The black-hat war-drivers have been around for quite a while. Although they'll save on gas now, being able to try to hack the network from the convenience of their front porches, nothing has changed. There will always be unsecured networks and there will always be secured networks.

The thing is... We are talking here about professionally deployed networks using equipment that supports authentication and encryption techniques that hackers quickly say "I pass" to. Strix employs technologies such as 802.11x and AES, and that along with PPTP and VPNs prevent hackers from launching any sort of "spoofing" or "man-in-the-middle" threat against a savvy network operator and their customers.

As far as free access services go, without encryption or authentication, this is no different than any public hotspot. Consumer education is the key for this.

Bluetooth and other technologies will enable “esoteric” denial-of-service attacks against WiFi mesh networks.

I assume that this is directed at the frequency-hopping nature of Bluetooth and its potential ability to disrupt 802.11 radio signals more effectively than WiFi access points. Perhaps these attacks are coming, but they will be highly localized to Bluetooth transmitter location. [Bluetooth has a range of around 30 feet at best.]

With regards to organized attacks by lots of people acting in concert, perhaps this might happen someday just to demonstrate that maybe it can be done, but I don't see a lot of risk to it being any sort of ongoing problem. And there are, after all, enforceable laws with unpleasant penalties in this area.

Savvy networking types will consolidate the free wireless access offered by mesh networks to increase their network throughput.

Again, absolutely true. Network operators who offer unrestricted, 24-by-7, totally free Internet access to any radio that happens to associate with their network will be vulnerable to this attack. It reminds me of when I was a kid out trick-or-treating on Halloween. There would always be a bowl on someone's front porch with a sign saying "please take only one piece of candy." The bowl, of course, was always empty. Network operators of mesh, just like real operators, need to be clued on control over their users and networks. Otherwise, they deserve no-existence, they are amateurs.

Some small businesses could actually use the municipal free WiFi network rather than have a dedicated connection -- this means low-end routers and APs added to the network, likely misconfigurations and typical insecurity.

I will be interested to see how many businesses will trust their networks to free WiFi offerings as well. More interesting (amusing) will be to see network operators offering free services to SMBs. I don't think so. Majority of metro mesh operations today are not for free but for profit.

Users could try to offload a lot of their P2P (gnutella, bittorrent, etc.) file sharing onto the municipal network.

Only if it's free and unmanaged. Again, I don't think that many network operators will offer 24-by-7 free and unrestricted access. Those that do are vulnerable to this type of use to their service. P2P fans will be grateful for as long as it lasts.

Chen sums up the Strix take on the issue like this:

There was a time, admittedly not long ago, when most enterprise and residential WiFi networks were woefully insecure. Because of this, there remains a tremendous concern over the security of this technology. But the truth is that today professional network designers are well aware of the risks, and they use the most advanced authentication and encryption features offered by Strix and other network equipment providers to protect their networks.

But rest assured, gentle reader, you haven’t heard the last of the mesh security issue yet. Both wireless analysts and 802.11 security firms are busily running tests on these networks now, and we hope to be able to report their initial findings very soon.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung. Special to Dark Reading

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