The Bulletin

The contagious, airborne computer virus spread through Wi-Fi

Posting in Technology

 A computer virus that can spread through Wi-Fi as efficiently as the common cold? Yep, it's here.

Researchers at the University of Liverpool say that, for the first time, they proved that a virus can infect a Wi-Fi network in highly-populated areas the way the common cold spreads through humans.  

"It was assumed ... 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," said Alan Marshall, professor of network security at the University of Liverpool, in a press release.

To reach this conclusion, the researchers developed a virus called Chameleon and simulated an attack on London and Belfast. They found that the computer virus spread like an airborne virus, traveling across Wi-Fi networks through wireless access points (APs) and quickly infecting the cities.

It's not good news, but there are a few positives, if you can call them that, that I can pull from this. 

A Wi-Fi virus is preventable. APs that were "sufficiently encrypted" and password protected were safe from the virus. And there are some basic steps to help secure your home Wi-Fi network. In the study, the virus was stopped by networks with strong protection. But it was still able to spread through less secure public Wi-Fi networks, like those in coffee shops and airports. It's just another reason why these public networks are such a risk, even if they are convenient. 

It can't cause physical damage. That's the good news. As Marshall explains: "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. The virus then sought out other Wi-Fi APs that it could connect to and infect."

When you do use public Wi-Fi, here are some ways to stay safe. But as we know with the cold virus, even if you follow best practices, you can still get sick.

— By on February 26, 2014, 1:39 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure