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I was finishing a clean installation of macOS Catalina on my MacBook, and I was asked to select a wifi network. I misclicked on a wifi network with a name that's very similar to mine and was asked to enter the password, obviously I cancelled it and selected my own network instead.

Can the act of requesting to join that network put my MacBook at risk? I am especially concerned since I was still in the middle of finalizing my macOS Catalina's setup.

I wonder if

  1. Does clicking on the wifi network itself and being asked to type in your password gives any information about my system that put it at risk?
  2. Can the request itself cause my MacBook to get any virus that may be plaguing the devices on that network? Or if the person who owns the network is malicious, can they compromise my computer that way?

I am considering reinstalling my MacOS again just for safe measure...

  • You didn't actually join the network. – schroeder May 29 at 11:30
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You do not have to worry, because you didn't send anything to the router that was part of the WiFi network you accidentally clicked on.

When any computer, regardless if it is a Mac, Windows, Linux, System V, ect., scans for available WiFi networks, it in fact is not scanning or communicating. In fact it is just waiting for what is called "Beacon Signal", which WiFi routers send out at regular intervals.

The beacon signals are frames that usually contain information about the WiFi network. These frames have many different types of information, and thus is said to be divided into many multiple fields. To not go into to much detail here, out of the 10 most known fields I will explain in a very high level about only two of the fields. These two fields are named "Capability Information" and "SSID" fields.

The "SSID" field is most known for containing the information relating to the name of the WiFi network. This is how one is able to see the names of the networks, on the list of available WiFi networks.

The "Capability Information" field is sub-divided into further sub-fields, and it is this field that relates to your question. The "Capability Field" contains information regarding the encryption, the type of WiFi network (IEEE 802.11 a/ax/n/b/g/.. standard), but more importantly relating to your question, whether the network requires a password or not to connect to it.

As long as you do not type in a password and hit enter, nothing is sent to the router that is sending out the beacon signals. Basically no information from your Mac Laptop was ever sent to that WiFi network that you accidentally selected.

I referred to the IEEE Std 80.211 Part 11: Wireless LAN Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) Specifications.

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  • If I take one step further, and I actually tried to type in the password to logon to the network, will that be an issue? – Ecotistician May 25 at 8:09
  • If you typed the password to your own network, that might reveal your own password and someone might get access to your network later. But as long as you don’t enter the password for the other network, you wouldn’t be connected to that network. – gnasher729 May 25 at 13:57
  • @Ecotistician no, unless it is an enterprise network, credentials are never actually sent over the air, although there is a hash transmitted that can be brute forced to recover the key, although this won't even happen if connecting to a fake network. If your PSK is strong enough, this should not be a concern. – multithr3at3d May 25 at 14:06
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Usually there is not much information send/requested only by clicking onto the network, even in case you sucessfully connect to that network it will need time to scan your system and use any know vulnerabilities to infect your system. If your system is out of date or has any services that are out of date then you can be worried, but in your case there is nothing to worry about in my opinion.

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  • Except the machine was only just installed, there is a high chance that nothing was updated to the latest patch level. – schroeder May 29 at 11:31

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