Wi-Fi-Hopping Malware Behaves Like Actual Virus

This malware is sick: The experimental "Chameleon" malware spreads rapidly among Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi network to another.

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"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," Alan Marshall, Professor of Network Security, 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 Wi-Fi router it encounters. Chameleon nevertheless behaves like a biological infectious organism, jumping among overlapping Wi-Fi networks as an airborne disease spreads among humans. 

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

Furthermore, because Chameleon doesn't migrate beyond Wi-Fi routers, it is undetectable to current anti-virus 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 Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi router.

Chameleon doesn't exist in the wild, so there's no real risk of infection. The good news is a strong Wi-Fi 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 Wi-Fi networks have weak passwords, or simply aren't password-protected at all.

In that sense, a Wi-Fi password is like a vaccine; having it will protect not only you, but the people (or Wi-Fi routers) around you as well.

Email jscharr@techmedianetwork.com or follow her @JillScharr and Google+.  Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.