Sniff Packets & Capture Packet Trace on Mac OS Easy Way

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The Mac includes an array of powerful wireless networking tools out there features useful for administration and IT purposes, including the ability to track packages. Here we will demonstrate how to Easily run a package trace in OS X using the built-in Wi-Fi Diagnostics app. Using the Wi-Fi Diagnostics Sniffer feature is simple and requires no additional downloads, nor command line usage.

While the packet capture is really quite simple, it is usually an advanced one feature aimed at IT staff, network administrators, system administrators and other more technically informed user groups. Nonetheless, it is easy to follow, so a regular Mac user will be able to sniff out packages and browse the recording file, although novice users may not be able to interpret the results of the pcap / wcap file.

How to Sniff packages of wireless diagnostics in OS X

This process automatically disconnects from any active wireless network and transfers on the Mac, instead it uses the Mac’s Wi-Fi card to detect wireless network traffic and record detected data in a packet transfer file.

  1. Option + Click the Wi-Fi menu item in the OS X menu bar
  2. Choose “Open Wireless Diagnostics” from the list to open the Wi-Fi utility
  3. Open the Wireless Diagnostics app in OS X

  4. Ignore the home screen and pull down the “Window” menu, choose “Sniffer” from the list of options in the Wireless Diagnostics menu
  5. Wireless Diagnostics Packet Sniffer in Mac OS X

  6. Select the Wi-Fi channel and channel width to sniff and capture packets, using the Wi-Fi network tumbler tool can be helpful to determine which channels and widths to sniff the network traffic to, then click ‘Start’
  7. Start sniffing packets for channels to capture packets in Mac OS X

  8. When you are satisfied with the length of the packet capture or if enough network traffic has been sniffed, click “Stop” to end the packet tracking and save the captured package file to the OS X desktop.

The captured package file will appear on the desktop with the extension .wcap and contain the time of the capture of the package. The name should look something like “2020.04.20_17-27-12-PDT.wcap”.

Packages included WCAP and PCAP files from the Mac OS X packages sniffer

Open the WCAP / PCAP Capture file in Mac OS X

This file can be viewed from the command line with tcpdump, or with an app such as WireShark. Browsing the package capture file via the command line looks like this:

Read a pcap file in the Mac OS X command line

If you want, you can change the file extension from wcap to pcap and you can open the output file in other apps as well, including Cocoa Packet Analyzer (App Store link). The screenshot below shows what this looks like in the CPA app:

Reading a Captured PCAP WCAP Package Tracking File in Mac OS X Using the Cocoa Packet Analyzer App

What you do with the recording file and its contents is up to you. We will not go into how to interpret the results or what you can do with the information in the capture file in this particular walkthrough.

Why record a package trace and how do you benefit from tracking packages?

There are many reasons and purposes for packet trace logging, but the most common is arguably for network troubleshooting, 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 diagnose the cause and limit the action to be taken by IT personnel or a network administrator. There are also more questionable purposes for packet sniffing, and because it captures the raw data that flows across a network, the type of information that can be collected on unsecured wireless networks is potentially revealing. The latter is one of many that shows why it is so important to only join a secure Wi-Fi network. However, most services today use encryption to transfer data, and most wireless networks are encrypted with WPA security, both of which address many of the concerns that were once justified. This means that packet discovery and network data capture is usually reserved for legitimate purposes and network optimization, and it is a fairly common task in large network environments.

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Apple

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mac OS


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