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Measure Devised of Disruption From Attacks on Wi-Fi Networks

Wi-Fi symbol (WiFi alliance/Wikimedia Commons)

(WiFi Alliance/Wikimedia Commons)

Engineers at North Carolina State University in Raleigh have developed a way of measuring the potential disruption from various types of attacks on Wi-Fi networks. The tools proposed by professor of electrical and computer engineering professor Wenye Wang and her colleagues will appear in a forthcoming issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing.

Wi-Fi has become an increasingly popular networking scheme for mobile computer users, including travelers and coffee shop visitors, but businesses are also adopting the technology for general network connectivity. Administrators therefore need to protect these networks from attacks that block access or deny service to users.

The NC State team analyzed two types of attacks on Wi-Fi networks: persistent and intermittent attacks. Persistent attacks are continuous, sustained assaults on the networks, but can be identified and potentially disabled. Intermittent attacks block access from time to time rather than continuously, but can be more difficult to identify and interrupt because of their unpredictable timing.

Wang and colleagues compared the performance of these strategies under varying conditions, such as with different numbers of users. These assessments led to creation of a metric they call order gain, which can be used to gauge the impact of attack strategies under various scenarios.

Order gain computes a ratio of the probability of an attacker having access to the Wi-Fi network to the probability of a legitimate user having access to the network. An attacker with an 80 percent chance of accessing the network, for example, has 4 times more of a chance than other (non-attacker) users, who have the other 20 percent of getting on the network. Thus the order gain here — with a ratio of 80 to 20 — would be 4.

The order-gain metric is important because Wi-Fi networks can only serve one computer at a time, and they normally cycle through multiple requests very quickly. Attacks on Wi-Fi work by giving attackers greater access to these networks, which effectively block other users.

The metric gives network administrators and security specialists an index for designing countermeasures. “It’s impossible to prevent every conceivable attack,” says Wang. “If we want to design effective countermeasures, we have to target the attacks that can cause the most disruption.” With this metric, network professionals can give first priority to scenarios with most potential disruption, as well as assess a range of potential complex impacts that vary according to type of attack and number of users.

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