Researchers at the University of Liverpool have created a wi-fi virus which spreads through populated areas as efficiently as the common cold spreads between humans.
The team designed and simulated an attack by a virus, it dubbed "Chameleon". It found it spread quickly between homes and businesses, but it was able to avoid detection and identify the points at which wi-fi access is least protected by encryption and passwords.
Fortunately the wi-fi attack was just a computer simulation, but researchers from the University's School of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and Electronics, found that "Chameleon" behaved like an airborne virus.
This is partly because areas that are more densely populated have more APs in closer proximity to each other, which meant that the virus propagated more quickly, particularly across networks connectable within a 10-50 metre radius.
Alan Marshall, Professor of Network Security at the University, said that when "Chameleon" attacked an AP it did not 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 used this data to connect to and infect other users.
When an APs was encrypted and password protected, the virus simply moved on to find those which weren't strongly protected. Coffee shops and airports became hotbeds of infection.
Professor Marshall said that it was assumed that it was not possible to develop a virus that could attack wi-fi networks but the research demonstrated that this is possible and that it can spread quickly.