Got your WiFi turned on? Error!

How leaving your WiFi 'on' is haemorrhaging personal information to the world, like where you eat, sleep and work...
16 February 2015

Interview with 

Glenn Wilkinson, SensePost


Many of us are unaware how much personal information we permit apps to take but what about our phones alone. If we had no apps, our personal data would be safe, right? Wrong: As it turns out, just by having your wifi switched to 'on,' you could be broadcasting messages to the world about who you are, what you like and even where you sleep at night. This is all possible with a free bit of software, available online, called Snoopy. Graihagh Jackson reports...

Graihagh - I'm whizzing down on a train to London for work. I've got my coffee and a long list of emails to attend to but my phone signal is a bit patchy. What to do? Well, wi-fi would of course be a perfect solution and sure enough, if I go into my phone's settings, there are loads of networks to connect to. Normally, I wouldn't hesitate to click connect, but today, I'm having second thoughts. Why? Well, it could be that I'm broadcasting information about myself to the world. I've come to Finsbury Park in North London to meet Glenn Wilkinson, the designer of some software called Snoopy. Snoopy can gather sensitive information from Smartphones simply by using their wi-fi signal. So hit me. What is the unvarnished truth? If I've got my wi-fi on now on my phone, what can you really tell about me?

Glenn - There's all types of different things we can tell from your mobile phone. Now essentially, the way wi-fi works is that if you've got wi-fi on, your phone is constantly looking for every wireless network you've ever connected to. It's looking for Starbucks, it's looking for LAX wi-fi, it's looking for McDonalds free wi-fi, it's looking for your home wi-fi or work wi-fi, and it's quite easy to detect those messages. There's two useful bits of information in that message - one, the name of the network your phone is looking for; and two, a unique serial number that identifies your phone in particular. It's called the MAC address. So immediately, I can tell what kind of phone you have and I know what networks you've previously connected to.

Graihagh - Could I think of this as like a unique digital fingerprint?

Glenn - Yup, absolutely. So, the over-arching idea of the research I'm doing is looking for a unique fingerprint for individuals based on the devices that they carry. Now, understanding what networks you've connected to could be useful for all kinds of reasons. At the very least, I can understand a little bit about you. If you've previously connected to networks like "Hilton Premier Suite" and "British Airways first class lounge", I can infer you're a bit of a high roller. I can maybe also figure out where you work. An example of that recently, I was on a train and I noticed there were these five mobile phones looking for a network, we'll call it Acme Bank Incorporated, and two of the devices were also looking for Hooters, so, hmmmm. I didn't know what Hooters was I had to Google it, but apparently it's some kind of bar...

Graihagh - Of course, you didn't.

Glenn - But immediately quite interesting.

Graihagh - I find this - well, terrifying. I'm going to let you demonstrate this. You've attached Snoopy to a drone. Why have you attached it to a drone?

Glenn - So, Snoopy is inherently mobile. You can run it on certain mobile phones and put it in your pocket and walk around in an area. If you attached that to a drone, we can fly the drone autonomously. So we can plot missions. Say, I want you to canvass this entire neighbourhood of London. It's unfortunately illegal to do this, but I guess criminals won't really care.

Graihagh - I was going to say, let's canvass Finsbury Park, but obviously, we're not allowed to do that. So, why don't we just canvass what we can see and see what sort of data we can pick up. I have to admit, it's pretty cold and there's not many people about. There's a dog walker and a man picking up some litter over there. So, do you think we might be able to pick up where these people are from?

Glenn - Yeah, absolutely. So what we'll do, we'll just hover Snoopy within a safe distance of these people, buzz around the park a bit and just illustrate the data being collected in real time and sent back to my laptop where we can analyse it. So, we've got the drone here.

Graihagh - Okay, so the drone is not very big. It's about 500 grams with 4 propellers. Oh my goodness! It's really fast. How fast can this thing go?

Glenn - So, this one probably on the order of 60 km an hour. So, if we just go hover within 15 meters of those people over there, we'll probably get reading in a few seconds. So, if we see here, we can see the data.

Graihagh - Wow!

Glenn - So, that's a lot there that's from a coffee shop. So, we met earlier and we detected 254 devices. And now, flying out here, we've got 11. Now, what's interesting is we've seen this one device both inside the coffee shop and around the park here. I'm a bit paranoid because what that indicates is someone is following us.

Graihagh - They could be knowing what you're up to and what your software is capable of. Is that not? That's why they're still here somewhere.

Glenn - Could be someone has been intercepting our emails to each other, they know we're here, and this is a sign that they're watching us.

Graihagh - Oh dear!

Glenn - Let's have a look at some of the other ones here. So somebody around us has an unknown device. That probably means it's a fairly new one that's not in our database yet. It's looking for this "SKY BA etc." which is, someone's got a Skybox at home and what we can do is, we can try and figure out where that person lives. And here, excellent, we got a hit. So, if you double-click on that, we get a photograph and a street address. So, Endymion Road, London, it's the postcode and that photograph that we saw is a photograph of their house or of their neighbourhood I guess.

Graihagh - Some beautiful sort of Georgian houses with pillars at the front.

Glenn - So now, we could go and pay them a visit if you wanted to.

Graihagh - Remind me, why have you built this because it seems like a fairly potent and clever, and potentially quite dangerous bit of software and hardware to be putting freely available on the internet?

Glenn - I get a lot of comments about why, "Why are you releasing this? It's dangerous." But the point of doing research like this is to raise awareness. To just show the public, look, how easy this is. Look how broken these standards are. I mean, just as a trivial example, if you go to the mall, you'll notice on the entrance, there's a very small sticker that says, something along the lines of, "Patrons will be monitored via their mobile phones to enhance their shopping experience." That kind of stuff is already being done. The difference is, we have released Snoopy for free to put pressure on the manufacturers to actually think about what they're doing and realise that, "Hey, maybe it's not the best way that we're doing things. Maybe we can enhance our security to protect our customers."

Graihagh - As soon as I got home, I turned my wi-fi back on but in the future, I'll be turning it off when I don't need it. Glenn also suggested I flush my preferred network lists to get rid of the Hooters type wi-fi and I should do this every 6 months.


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