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New Wi-Fi Computer Virus Can Spread Like an Airborne Disease

This malware is sick: The experimental “Chameleon” malware spreads rapidly among WiFi networks in densely populated areas, much as a disease spreads through crowded urban areas. 

Developed in a laboratory at the University of Liverpool in England, Chameleon is the first malware known to propagate by hopping from one WiFi network to another.

“It was assumed … that it wasn’t possible to develop a virus that could attack WiFi networks; but we demonstrated that this is possible and that it can spread quickly,” Alan Marshall, one of the paper’s co-authors, said in a statement.

Chameleon is technically a worm, not a virus, because it replicates without human assistance by trying to crack the password of each new WiFi router it encounters. Chameleon nevertheless behaves like a biological infectious organism, jumping among overlapping WiFi networks much as an airborne disease spreads among humans. 

The researchers simulated Chameleon infections in London and Belfast and found that just a few infections can spread the worm to “thousands of infected devices within 24 hours.”

Furthermore, because Chameleon doesn’t migrate beyond WiFi routers, it is undetectable to current antivirus software, which scans for threats on computers and the Internet.

In its current state, Chameleon doesn’t do much more than replicate itself and identify poorly protected WiFi networks, but the researchers say in their paper that such malware could be used to eavesdrop on Internet traffic, alter or destroy data packets, or destroy an infected WiFi router.

Chameleon doesn’t exist in the wild, so there’s no real risk of infection. The good news is that a strong WiFi password will keep your router safe from this kind of malware; if it can’t break into your router, it will simply move on to the next available one.

The bad news is that many commercial and private WiFi networks have weak passwords or simply aren’t password-protected at all.

In that sense, a WiFi password is like a vaccine; having it will protect not only you, but the people — or WiFi routers — around you as well.

Jill Scharr, Tom’s Guide
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