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So my calculus teacher, who also teaches computer science, claims that a computer's entire filesystem can be downloaded wirelessly by anyone on the same network?

As a Ruby on Rails professional, networking/security dabbler, and science/technology enthusiast, I am almost positive he is an eccentric conspiracy-theorist/doomsday fan. Is there any truth to what he is saying?

So essentially what I have seen is that it is, as I suspected, practically impossible in the case of the standard computer user. Most computer users do not have server processes running, and even users who do like myself, are not at risk because of the vast measures of security given to me by the great creators of my computer (apple). It seems that a user would need to have a flagrant disregard for tampering with built in security subsets. Also the nature of the attack would need to be very personalized given cross-platform consistency. Thank you all for your input!

-Brian

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There's a big difference between "can" and "is". Yes, it's theoretically possible, but not even the most nefarious hacker wants the entire contents of your computer - he'll restrict his downloads to files of interest, like tax returns, documents that contain SSN's or Credit Card numbers, etc. There's not much point in an entire 100GB filesystem when he only wants to look at a few sensitive documents so he can have his malware filter the documents to avoid spending several days downloading the entire contents of your hard drive. –  Johnny Sep 9 '13 at 22:22

3 Answers 3

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In a corporate intranet it is not uncommon for the hard drives of every computer to be accessible through Windows Shares/Samba for ease of IT Support. If your teacher has encountered this, he may infer the same for any intranet and for wireless also.

In practice wireless networks are secured differently from wired networks as wired network topology and security can be controlled through routers and switches; while a wireless network is a public mesh network of nearby transceivers converted into whatever logical networks a device has authentication for, using some flavour of VPN.

Obviously if the computer's wireless interface is off then siphoning of data in this fashion is impossible. If it is on, the security of computer will depend on the intelligence and robustness of the firewall and firmware stack.

If you aren't running a service (implicit "helpful" Windows defaults or otherwise) that serves file content, the attacker will have to breach your computer sufficiently to install a siphoning tool or reactivate built-in file servers. This breach can also be user installed trojans.

Short answer: Yes if the wireless interface is turn on; but unlikely with even modest security precautions.

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Wire or no wire is a red herring. A "wireless" card is just Ethernet with electromagnetic waves propagating over the air instead of variations in the speed and direction of moving charges within copper. If an attacker can take control of a machine remotely, e.g. by exploiting some vulnerability in the machine's software, then he can upload and download data as will. The actual technology for the network transfer is important only insofar as it offers enough bandwidth for the attacker. Hard drives can contain a lot of data, but WiFi easily goes up to 54 MBits/s, which is quite a lot.

The only remaining question is whether a computer, on average, has an exploitable vulnerability which grants full control on the machine. Given that such kind of holes are regularly found (and fixed) in existing operating systems, it would be quite preposterous to claim that the last bug which was thus found and fixed was the Last Bug and that software is now rock solid. It seems more sensible to assume that there are, in any given computer with network connections, a number of holes which just wait to be exploited, allowing free access to the computer contents and, yes, downloading the full filesystem.

The trick, of course, is that potential attackers don't necessarily know more than us at any given time. They, too, grope in the dark, questing for these vulnerabilities. It is a never-ending race.

(Of course, if a computer does not have wireless capabilities, downloading its contents wirelessly will be substantially harder.)

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Imagine a TEMPEST solution that could download files from computers lacking a wireless interface... Scary. Currently the extraction seems limited to non-HDMI monitor output. –  LateralFractal Sep 9 '13 at 22:34

Given the right credentials or vulnerabilities in the target system downloading an entire drive is certainly possible. Depending on size of the hard drive and speed of the network it might take a while but as long as your both connected to the same network it should be possible.

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