The bad guys can sniff packets

Many users today access the Internet via wireless devices, such as WiFi-connected laptops or handheld devices with cellular Internet connections (covered in Chapter 6). While ubiquitous Internet access is extremely convenient and enables marvelous new applications for mobile users, it also creates a major security vulnerability—by placing a passive receiver in the vicinity of the wireless transmitter, that receiver can obtain a copy of every packet that is transmitted! These packets can contain all kinds of sensitive information, including passwords, social security numbers, trade secrets, and private personal messages. A passive receiver that records a copy of every packet that flies by is called a packet sniffer.

Sniffers can be deployed in wired environments as well. In wired broadcast envi- ronments, as in many Ethernet LANs, a packet sniffer can obtain copies of broadcast packets sent over the LAN. As described in Section 1.2, cable access technologies also broadcast packets and are thus vulnerable to sniffing. Furthermore, a bad guy who gains access to an institution’s access router or access link to the Internet may be able to plant a sniffer that makes a copy of every packet going to/from the organi- zation. Sniffed packets can then be analyzed offline for sensitive information.

Packet-sniffing software is freely available at various Web sites and as commercial products. Professors teaching a networking course have been known to assign lab exer- cises that involve writing a packet-sniffing and application-layer data reconstruction program. Indeed, the Wireshark [Wireshark 2012] labs associated with this text (see the introductory Wireshark lab at the end of this chapter) use exactly such a packet sniffer!

Because packet sniffers are passive—that is, they do not inject packets into the channel—they are difficult to detect. So, when we send packets into a wireless chan- nel, we must accept the possibility that some bad guy may be recording copies of our packets. As you may have guessed, some of the best defenses against packet sniffing involve cryptography. We will examine cryptography as it applies to net- work security in Chapter 8.

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