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Wi-Fi users warned of pirates

AT&T Broadband tells customers to secure their Wi-Fi networks after someone used a subscriber's access to dispatch a pirated movie over the Web.

AT&T Broadband is warning customers to secure their Wi-Fi networks after an unusual case in which a subscriber played an unwitting role in dispatching a pirated movie over the Internet, the company's spokeswoman said.

The movie pirate lived next door to the subscriber, and was able to access his neighbor's Wi-Fi wireless network to send the movie out over his neighbor's AT&T Broadband high-speed Internet service, according to AT&T Broadband spokeswoman Sara Eder.

The actual pirate was ultimately caught, and the AT&T Broadband customer got a break.

"All we could do was ask the neighbor to encrypt his Wi-Fi network," said Eder, who added that they tracked down the problem after getting a complaint from an agency representing the movie's producers.

The incident has sparked an "educational effort" by the company, which is asking customers with Wi-Fi networks to turn on the encryption that comes standard with most of these devices, but is usually not activated when shipped by manufacturers.

The case is another example of how insecure most Wi-Fi networks are and comes at a time when DSL (digital subscriber line) providers are beginning to crack down on users who share their bandwidth via Wi-Fi. Broadband providers say Wi-Fi networks are an easy, anonymous way to shuttle pirated content onto the Web.

Time Warner Cable recently sent letters out to a dozen or so Wi-Fi subscribers who are sharing their bandwidth over a wireless network. The letters point out that sharing bandwidth opens subscribers up to legal risks if others use it for untoward purposes. The company has yet to shut down any customers, a spokeswoman said.

Tim Pozar, of the Bay Area Wireless Users Group, still ruffles at Time Warner Cable's claims that somehow a Wi-Fi user could be found liable for unauthorized use of a broadband network. The latest case of the pirated movie is a sign that the DSL providers threats are toothless, he said.

"It's like someone tapping your line, then using (you) for a drug drop," he said.

Pozar said the movie case is the first he's heard of involving pirated material being shuttled over a Wi-Fi network. The most egregious use until now was spamming, he said.

NIST fit
While Wi-Fi makes it possible to roam a 300-foot area and connect to the Internet or another device without wires, hackers continue to show that the networks are porous. The latest slam came from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which reviews new technology for government agencies.

NIST called current Wi-Fi networks "an unacceptable risk" for government agencies because they don't meet government security needs. NIST recommends the agencies "simply wait" for more mature security standards to come out before adding 802.11b networks into their work places or operations.

New security standards aren't expected to be ratified until later this year, which would put more secure products on the market sometime next year.

While the warnings to activate the encryption are helpful to consumers, businesses generally do not need them. Often they are already familiar with security holes in WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy), the standard security measures on every piece of Wi-Fi equipment, said Tom Hussey, wireless Internet product manager for Nortel Networks.

"Fortune 500 types are well aware of the inefficiencies," and they add more security measures on their own, he said.