A computer virus that spread like a contagion through a Wi-Fi connection has been created by researchers at the University of Liverpool's School of Electrical Engineering, Electronics and Computer Science.
The virus is named Chameleon, and can spread through densely populated areas, much like the common cold. It jumps from network to network via access points, allowing it to spread quickly through different homes and businesses.
This is the first virus with the ability to attack a Wi-Fi network. Access points have been known as potentially weak spots onto networks, often left unprotected or protected by only the manufacturer's default security codes, reported Forbes.
"Wi-Fi connections are increasingly a target for computer hackers because of well-documented security vulnerabilities, which make it difficult to detect and defend against a virus," Alan Marshall, Professor of Network Security told CNET. "It was assumed, however, that it wasn't possible to develop a virus that could attack Wi-Fi networks; but we demonstrated that this is possible and that it can spread quickly. We are now able to use the data generated from this study to develop a new technique to identify when an attack is likely."
The team discovered the airborne virus-like qualities of Chameleon in a simulated attack on Belfast and London. The virus was able to remain hidden from anti-virus software when hopping between different networks because the anti-virus software was looking on the Internet and in the computer, not on the Wi-Fi network.
"Most virus protection is sitting on endpoint devices like laptops, tablets and PCs and it’s looking for viruses on the Internet or within the device, not on the network. The team designed Chameleon to sit only on the network, effectively invisible to security programs," reported Forbes.
The higher the density of the area, the faster the virus spread. This is because the connectivity of the devices was more important for the transfer of the virus than the weakness of the access points onto the Wi-Fi network. Places such as public libraries, coffee shops and corporate office buildings would be hot spots to contract the virus.
"When Chameleon attacked an AP it didn't affect how it worked, but was able to collect and report the credentials of all other Wi-Fi users who connected to it," Professor Marshall said. "The virus then sought out other Wi-Fi APs that it could connect to and infect."
The findings were published in the Eurasip Journal on Information Security. The researchers called the attack was a "significant" threat to WiFi security, with possible implications of data theft and device malfunction.
The virus is able to be blocked through secure networks. The team is using new information from this test to discover new security programs and to understand when an attack is more likely to occur.
Gizmodo speculated on further implications for virus transfer. In the future, we may be contracting viruses through streaming video, cellular networks, or any other type of communication that a hacker can imagine.