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Macs come with a number of powerful wireless networking tools that offer many features that are useful for administrative and IT purposes, including the ability to sniff packets. Here’s how to easily perform packet tracking in OS X using the built-in Wi-Fi diagnostic app. Wi-Fi Diagnostics Sniffer is simple to use and requires no extra downloads or command line.
While packet capture is really easy, this is mostly an advanced feature for IT staff, network administrators, system administrators, and other more technically savvy user groups. Nevertheless, it is easy to follow, so a casual Mac user can sniff packets and browse the capture file, although novice users may not be able to interpret the results of pcap / wcap files.
How to sniff packets with wireless diagnostics in OS X.
This process automatically disconnects from any active wireless network and transmission on your Mac, instead of owning a Mac wi-fi card to sniff out wireless network traffic and intercept detected data into a packet transfer file.
- Option + Click the Wi-Fi menu item on the OS X menu bar
- Select “Open Wireless Diagnostics” from the list to open the wi-fi utility
- Skip the splash screen and drag down the window, select “Sniffer” from the list of options in the Wireless Diagnostics menu
- Select the Wi-Fi channel and channel width from which to compress and intercept packets, the Wi-Fi network stumbling tool can be useful to identify channels and widths from which network traffic is sniffed, and then click Start
- When you are satisfied with the length of the packet interception or when enough network traffic has been retrieved, click “Stop” to stop the packet trace and save the intercepted packet file to the OS X desktop.
The captured package file appears on the desktop with a .wcap extension and contains the time the packages were captured. For example, the name should display “2020.04.20_17-27-12-PDT.wcap”.
Open a WCAP / PCAP capture file in Mac OS X.
This file can be viewed from the command line with tcpdump or an application such as WireShark. To browse the package capture file from the command line, look like this:
If you want, you can change the file extension from wcap to pcap, and you can open the output file in other applications, including Cocoa Packet Analyzer (App Store link). The screenshot below shows what this looks like in CPA:
What you do with the capture file and its contents is your job. We are not going to discuss the interpretation of the results or what you can do with the information in the capture file in this particular review.
Why capture a packet trace and what are the benefits of sniffing packets?
There are many reasons and purposes for intercepting packet traces, but perhaps the most common are network troubleshooting purposes, either to identify a connection problem or to better understand a particular network problem. This is especially true if you have a recurring problem where network performance suffers, as it can help identify the cause and narrow down the actions that need to be addressed by IT staff or the network administrator. There are also more questionable purposes in packet sniffing, and because it intercepts raw data passing through the network, the information that may be collected in unsecured wireless networks is potentially revealing. The latter reason is one of many that show why it is so important to only join a secure wireless network. However, most services today use encryption to transmit data, and most wireless networks are encrypted with WPA security, both of which alleviate much of the concerns that may once be justified. This means that sniffing packets and intercepting network data is mostly reserved for legitimate purposes and network optimization, and is a fairly common task in large network environments.
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