Howto intercept the traffic of nearby smart phones or why you should disable WiFi in the public

December 8, 2014

This blog post will show you how easy it is to intercept the traffic of nearby smart phones, and there are no special tricks or know how needed. So lets start with a little background info:



All major smart phone operating systems (e.g. Android, iOS) are keeping a list of WiFi networks you’ve be connected to and if WiFi is enabled on the phone and it sees the same SSID it will try to connect to it automatically. iOS also synchronizes the list of once connected SSIDs between your devices (iPhones, iPad and even a Mac) – so your list got a lot longer. For your encrypted home or company network this is an good idea, but this happens also for public hotspots which are unencrypted. It is possible (at least on Android) to configure the phone that it does not auto connect to a given SSID, but 95% of the user will not ever seen this option or use it.

For those that still think that hiding the SSID is a good idea, think again. It makes this attack even easier as following happens:

When you hide your wireless SSID on the router side of things, what actually happens behind the scenes is that your laptop or mobile device is going to start pinging over the air to try and find your router—no matter where you are. So you’re sitting there at the neighborhood coffee shop, and your laptop or iPhone is telling anybody with a network scanner that you’ve got a hidden network at your house or job.


SSIDs for the attack

After reading the background part, the attack vector should be obvious. We need to broadcast SSIDs the phones will automatically connect to. So what would be good SSIDs for this? There are some global ones like SSIDs from big hotel and fast food chains, than there are the ones that are big in a given nation like public transportation or telecommunication provider SSID. And at last there a big local players in the location the attack takes place. So how to get this SSIDs?  Really simple, there are sites which help you finding them:

  • e.g. following site which allows a search by chains and tells me e.g that the SSID for Starbucks is “WIFLY”
  • or following site allows to search for airports and other bigger locations in a country. e.g.  SSIDs for the Vienna airport is “Wireless Vienna Airport”
  • and there are many more sites like this

but for some SSIDs you don’t need to look in the Internet, just check you’re phone and look around you.

  • e.g. many who travelled with the RailJet train will have an “OEBB” SSID on their phones. And whats about the rail stations?
  • Check the free WiFi SSID of your city e.g. in Innsbruck “Innsbruck Wireless

So it should really easy to compile a list.


Hardware and Software for the attack

As we need multiple SSIDs broadcast-ed we need a hardware which allows us that and as we like it to be mobile a small embedded system like a Raspberry Pi would be nice. We also need a USB WiFi – one WiFi chip vendor which is often used for this is Atheros. And a USB UMTS/LTE stick for the up-link so we see some traffic going over our system. As software hostapd for the WiFi part  and as a small DHCP/DNS server dnsmasq is commonly used. There are multiple programs to intercept the traffic which is routed over this system. I’ll not go into details on how to configure it all together so that it hopefully keeps script kiddies away.


Defence against the attack

There are several methods to minimize the attack surface, which I recommend all you use:

  • The first and with the biggest benefit is to disable WiFi if not at home or work. Doing this manually won’t work (at least not for me) so I use llama on Android to enable WiFi if the GSM cell tells me I’m near my home.  So I’m only vulnerable to if I’m near to my home or if I enable WiFi while travelling abroad and want to use a WiFi.
  • Periodically remove SSIDs from your phone you don’t need any more. On Android this can be done on the phone. On iOS you can delete the SSIDs on your Mac which gets synchronized to your phone. Adding unencrypted SSIDs is a one click operation you I’ll recommend to remove all unencrypted ones.
  • Make sure all traffic (like pop3, imap, smtp, xmpp, …) is encrypted and make sure it’s not “encrypt if possible” (why? take a look at that post) , you’ll never know when your phone roams into an insecure network. Even if the WiFi is not provided by the attacker, hotspots are normally not encrypted!


With the same method it is also possible to attack the phone directly. Why is that important? Many providers assign only 10.x.x.x IP addresses to the phones and use “Carrier Grade NAT” (CGN) to translate that to “real” IP addresses. They mostly do this because of the amount of IPv4 addresses they would need otherwise, but it also does not allow connecting directly to the phones. And a targeted attack is much easier if you see the MAC address of the device and in this case you even don’t need an up-link. 🙂




1 Comment »

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  1. There’s definately a lot to learn about this issue.
    I really like all of the points you’ve made.

    Comment by — January 6, 2015 #

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