FCC White Space Approval Raises Wireless Hacking Concerns

Published November 19, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission unanimous approval of “white spaces” for wireless networking access has raised concerns signals carried on the spectrum could be “sniffed” by hackers.

Even with current, less powerful wi-fi signals, there have been several news reports of hackers picking up hot spot wireless signals.

Even though the white space use would make this easier to do, it’s not really difficult today, said Neeraj Srivastava, vice president of marketing and business development at Spectrum Bridge, a company providing software and services to wireless providers and equipment manufacturers. “You could buy what you need [to intercept signals] for a few dollars at Radio Shack.”

‘Unlikely to Stop Hackers’

Although some hotels and other locations require a person enter a code to access wi-fi, most readily available sites such as those at McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Panera Bread only require the user agree to the “terms of use.” Though those terms usually include some language about not using the access for illegal purposes, the disclaimer is unlikely to stop any hackers.

Mike Jude, program manager with Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan, an international telecommunications strategic forecasting group, said some new wi-fi providers might provide encrypted access for a fee and open access for free. He said the open access would likely include a disclaimer about not transmitting sensitive information via the wi-fi signal.

“The public has to accept a certain amount of responsibility,” Jude said. “This provides a compelling value proposition and business case.”

Spectrum Bridge, Rice University and a handful of others have announced very limited white space trials, but Jude and Srivastava say it will be more than a year before the first “early adopters” start using white space capabilities beyond these trials. And it will be at least a few years beyond that before white spaces are used regularly for wi-fi connections.

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.