Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress

Matthew McKenzie, Editor in Chief / Community Leader | 10/27/2010 | 26 comments

Matthew McKenzie

Wi-Fi Direct is officially here, and judging from the hype you'd think it was pretty hot stuff. From what I've seen, though, I'm not impressed.

The technology is designed to allow peer-to-peer WiFi connections between any two devices that support it. It's sort of like the existing ad hoc mode for WiFi networking, except the speed at which two devices find one another and connect will be much faster, as will the actual connection speed.

Both of these issues are a serious problem for traditional WiFi connections, which come in two varieties: slow and slower.

Wi-Fi Direct also claims to have a jump on security concerns. The group behind the standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance , is touting its support for Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which streamlines the process of creating secure connections, and its use of strong WPA2 security. If it works as planned, creating a secure connection between two devices will happen (literally) at the push of a button.

Sounds great, right? Since some Wi-Fi Direct-certified devices are already shipping, and the standard is backward-compatible with existing WiFi standards, it won't take long to try it out for yourself.

Naturally, that won't stop me from telling you how I think this will play out. Wi-Fi Direct has a lot going for it on paper, but in practice I think it's a recipe for mass confusion.

First, if you work in enterprise IT, I suggest that you regard Wi-Fi Direct as a clear and present security threat until it proves itself otherwise. Quick, easy, instantaneous peer-to-peer connections among devices -- printers, cameras, smartphones, tablets, and who knows what else -- sounds like it will be very convenient... especially for people trying to move data they shouldn't be touching to places it shouldn't be going.

Yet there's also a practical issue here, and it involves a couple of things that I have learned from using Bluetooth hardware over the years. First, these "quick, easy, instantaneous" connections tend to fail a good percentage of the time. And when they do fail, trying to troubleshoot the problem is an exercise in futility.

Even if Wi-Fi Direct avoids this problem, it's got another one: its superior range.

Bluetooth connectivity extends a few feet. Even then, you may have multiple devices within range, and those devices often identify themselves in very unhelpful ways. Now Wi-Fi Direct promises to extend the range by an order of magnitude -- and in a world where every device uses this technology, you may need a bit of luck to find the right connection.

I understand why the WiFi standards-making group wants to implement this stuff. They stand to make a ton of money selling hardware that can connect anything to anything else, all without requiring any external networking hardware or access point.

Even so, I look at what Bluetooth has done -- or failed to do -- for our next-generation networking needs, and I have to view Wi-Fi Direct as more of a marketing exercise than as technology driven by any real market demand.

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Matthew McKenzie   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/11/2010 11:24:51 AM
Re: Do you think that organized crime....
This may be an interesting line of questioning to pursue tomorrow during my radio interview with Richard Stiennon on cyberwarfare. Organized economic espionage tactics would definitely profit from using this kind of stuff.
TR Sailing Fast   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/10/2010 10:33:11 PM
Re: Do you think that organized crime....
I would think that it would be very difficult to get the kind of access or information that would be damaging all by itself.

The problem is that if an organized group were to use tactics similar to what espionage networks used during the cold war - it could be done over time.

Scary stuff - people with addictions, bad habits that they are embarassed by and of course, money problems are exploited on a systematic way.

This is why some companies are now using background checks more extensively.

Sorry for the "bang in the night" thoughts.

Matthew McKenzie   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/10/2010 11:39:53 AM
Re: Do you think that organized crime....
@TR: I hadn't considered that angle, but it makes a lot of sense. It only has to happen once to damage the entire industry.

On the other hand, I can't imagine a situation where an individual dev has the ability to do that without another dev or the QA team noticing. If it somehow happened anyway, the fallout would be absolutely devastating.
The_Phil   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/9/2010 11:44:20 PM
Re: Do you think that organized crime....
Anything is possible. And with the amount of $$ involved, I wouldn't be surprised if that's the case already.
TR Sailing Fast   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/9/2010 9:50:17 PM
Do you think that organized crime....

Do you think that organized crime will try to coerce or put very smart people that work at security software companies in comprimised situations to extract back door access?

It is the same thing that you are warned against when doing security clearance level work.

Hmmmm....now that is scary.

Matthew McKenzie   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/9/2010 10:33:11 AM
Re: Here is one for you - bar code linking
It isn't about kids fooling around with grades and such anymore.....

Absolutely not. And it's not just about hackers trying to impress one another. It's about three things: money, money, and money. Huge amounts of money, more than enough to attract the world's biggest organized crime organizations.

TR Sailing Fast   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/8/2010 11:35:05 PM
Re: Here is one for you - bar code linking
Matt - The problem is just that.... there is now big money in hacking to get valuable information.

Thus, most users hate to do anything inconvenient, while the predator is happy to take advantage of any open doorway.

It isn't about kids fooling around with grades and such anymore.....

Matthew McKenzie   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/8/2010 10:18:11 AM
Re: Here is one for you - bar code linking
Matt - you know this security, linking stuff is just a crazy can of worms....you think you have it sorted and another one pops out of the woodwork - I think that is a mixed metaphor

I love a good mixed metaphor.

The thing about security, of course, is that no matter how hard you work to fix a problem, there are other people working twice as hard to find and exploit new ones. Throw in a healthy profit motive on both sides, and it's a war, no doubt about it.

TR Sailing Fast   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/5/2010 9:48:50 PM
Re: Here is one for you - bar code linking

The idea is that you use the bar code as a physical marker....not so much for security, but as part of a simple hash function.

Not a high security thing, more of a I want to connect these two things.

Actually, it is interesting that you mention that.  One of the patents that I worked on allows the system to update a simple display and the mobile device reads the screen (Images, not laser reading)  thus this key can rotate, sort of like an RSA key.

Nice thing about this is that it is easy for a computer to read that is right there, but a human can most likely not decode this by eye.

Matt - you know this security, linking stuff is just a crazy can of worms....you think you have it sorted and another one pops out of the woodwork - I think that is a mixed metaphor

Matthew McKenzie   Wi-Fi Direct Fails to Impress   11/5/2010 10:36:10 AM
Re: Here is one for you - bar code linking
@TR: Isn't it possible to spoof a barcode pretty easily? Or is there some way to build a PK signature or something similar into the barcode to prevent that?
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