Chameleon: An Airborne Computer Virus?

Did you know that computer viruses can spread through the air like the common cold? Chameleon, a lab-controlled program, proves that it's possible.
Back to Blog
Written by Staff Writer • Posted on May 12, 2014

We all know computer viruses are no fun; we spend a lot of time and money making sure our equipment stays virus-free. Most people are familiar with the common ways that viruses spread: downloading unfamiliar files from the Internet, opening strange email attachments, or clicking sketchy ads. However, as technology advances, threats and viruses advance as well. Take for example the Heartbleed bug, a vulnerability that is the biggest in Internet history, has been around for two years, yet wasn't discovered until recently.

To stay on top of new threats, researchers who work to strengthen security on personal computers also research the ways those security systems can be breached. This helps them to better understand what hackers are capable of doing and how to defeat those threats. A group of researchers based at the University of Liverpool have discovered something particularly stunning.

Introducing Chameleon

If I were to tell you that a new computer virus can travel through the air like the common cold or the flu, you might laugh. You might say, "That sounds like something straight out of a science fiction movie." That's what I thought when I first heard this news. The future is never as far away as we think.

Recently, British researchers successfully created a computer virus called Chameleon. It's the first to spread like a real airborne contagion. They claim that the virus can spread by hopping from network to network via access points, infecting unsecured routers or modems. Chameleon was able to collect the usernames and passwords of anyone that connected to the network.

If that wasn't bad enough, the virus, like the animal after which it's named, can avoid detection. Software has a hard time finding it because Chameleon resides on the network, not the computer itself (like many viruses do). It hunts like a Bengal tiger to identify weak wireless access points that are not protected by encryption and passwords. In heavily populated areas where wireless networks overlap, it could be easy for a virus like Chameleon to spread rapidly among homes and businesses.

Why Create Malware in a Lab?

It's important for you to remember: Chameleon, the very first virus of its kind, does not exist in the wild; meaning, it does not exist outside of the lab in which it was created. It was constructed by researchers in a laboratory at the University of Liverpool, a completely controlled environment. At Bask, we believe strongly that knowledge is power, and we want to help our members be knowledgeable computer users. It's important to be aware that these kinds of things are happening in technology so that we can learn how to deal with them.

You might ask: "Why would researchers purposefully create this virus?" There are several reasons. First and foremost, the creation of Chameleon proves that such a thing is possible. Throughout the process, the engineers responsible have been meticulously studying the virus, its capabilities and its behaviors, and collecting extremely valuable data. They can develop ways to detect the virus and stop it, if it does occur outside of the lab. The information collected can also help manufacturers build improved internal security measures directly into their products, as well as help Internet providers improve wireless network security.

The good news is that the virus was effectively blocked by secure networks, which can be set up pretty easily. The creation of Chameleon only reinforces the need to be more diligent with your wireless security. Make sure your computer and network are protected today!