WiFi Pineapple Penetration-Testing Tool Sparks Interest at DEF CON

The Linux-powered small-form-factor device is designed to easily take over WiFi connections and manipulate the data flow.

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Many good open-source software tools are freely available for penetration testers (and hackers) for testing the security of WiFi networks and their users. Getting those tools to run on a given computer isn't always easy, and walking around with a notebook running WiFi penetration tools isn't exactly the right approach if you're trying to be discrete.

That's where a device displayed at the DEF CON hacker conference last weekend comes into play and changes the game. The WiFi Pineapple is a small-form-factor Linux device that can discretely fit in a security researcher's bag, enabling the researcher to unobtrusively conduct a penetration-testing exercise.

At a presentation in the Wireless Hacking Village at DEF CON, a researcher cut out the middle of a large textbook and hid the Pineapple inside.
Pineapple creator Darren Kitchen described the device and detailed new capabilities. Kitchen explained that the original idea to build the Pineapple came from a desire to port the open-source Karma WiFi attack program to the FON (a small Fonera router).

The Pineapple has expanded since then and is now on its MarkIV hardware release, boasting a 400MHz Atheros AR9331 MIPS processor, 32MB of main memory and a complete 802.11 b/g/n stack.

When asked what version of Linux was running on the device, Kitchen said to think of the Pineapple as being its own Linux distribution, based somewhat on the OpenWRT Linux router project.
Karma, which is at the core of the Pineapple feature set, essentially pitches itself across the wireless spectrum to all endpoint clients looking for an access point (much like any other AP). But there is a big difference, which may seem fightening to some. The way many modern desktop and mobile WiFi stacks work is they first look for past connections so the user can get onto the network quickly.

So, for example, if your device commonly connects to an AP with the name "Friendly AP," the next time your device sees the "Friendly AP," it can automatically connect with it. When the client endpoint is looking for an access point (whether it's your home/office, Starbucks or the Friendly AP), Karma responds, essentially claiming (fraudulently) to be the access point the end user is looking for.

Once the user connects, that user is then at the mercy of the researcher. The Pineapple then adds other tools that can enable a researcher to manipulate the traffic of the end user. Going a step further, if a Pineapple user is inside a coffee shop (or office location), the research can execute what is known as a "deauth" attack, essentially disconnecting the end user from legitimate access point, then reconnecting him or her to the Pineapple.

The whole project is open source, though the actual Pineapple hardware carries a cost of $90 (at DEF CON at least). Apparently, it's an offer that hackers can't refuse either.

Kitchen said that 1.2 Pineapples were sold per minute on the first day of DEF CON. His company Hak5 didn't bring enough devices to the event, and they were sold out after only a single day.

So will the Pineapple improve security? Or will it make it worse?

If the device is solely used with malicious intent, it helps make the process of WiFi exploitation, easier. From that respect, all those Pineapples now out on the street could represent a real threat of which enterprise IT managers need to be wary.

However, some security experts say that weaknesses in WiFi and user behavior need to be identified and weeded out in order to make organizations more secure. If the Pineapple is able to help security researchers do that, they say, than it will improve security for us all.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWeek and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.