Security lapses in wireless LANs (WLAN) have been making headlines for several years. Many reports of unsecured WaLANs and accompanied break-ins of large enterprises have appeared in the press, but we have seen very few of these reports in the recent pass. Are WLAN security concerns a thing of the past? There is no doubt that driving through major metropolitan areas will expose many unprotected access points (AP). In fact, many who travel extensively count on that very fact, and may refuse to pay the sometimes steep hotel charges for broadband, instead searching for an open WiFi connection within reach of their room. Indeed, many road warriors claim they can find an open AP as often as 35%-50% of the time in many cities and business locations. Even though it may not be 100% legal to simply connect this way, the “connection borrowers” rationalize that they do not interfere with the owner’s connection and use very little bandwidth (primarily just used for sending and receiving email). In fact, most owners of open APs could care less if someone driving by ties into their broadband connection for a short time (if it was being done permanently, as someone attaching in the next apartment or house, then that would be a different story).
Unlike the past, open networks at companies of all sizes, have virtually disappeared. Even small firms now understand the value of turning on WPA security, and virtually all do (as do an increasing number of home users). Further, unlike the early days of WLANs, there are very few “rogue” APs in the workplace. Over the past couple of years, it has become much easier to use WPA and set up remote machines, through major usability improvements from MSFT, Intel and the AP vendors. Therefore, there is very little excuse not to enable it, and the old days of taking hours to configure security on the AP and each individual machine are long gone.
We don’t know of any significant recent enterprise wireless breaches. Companies, especially big ones (e.g., Lowes, Best Buy, or other past break in cases) have become very good at security. Not only do they enable security on each AP, but they also generally run a firewall and isolate each location from the rest of the network. By doing so, any “wireless hackers” would have to first break through the wireless security, and then also have to break through the firewalls to get beyond the local network. Not impossible, but difficult, and a hacker will likely be hesitant to sit in a car outside a shopping center for an extended period of time trying to hack in. The bigger security threat is from hackers who connect to a company network over the Internet and hack their way through firewalls and logins. This is still taking place, though few companies will admit it, and many more may not even know about it. This is not a wireless issue per se. Rather, it is an issue of how capable the firewall, network authentication and security are. That is a much more important issue for preventing break-ins (although of course wireless security must be turned on and enforced as well).
Bottom Line: WLAN security overall has improved over the past few years. However, unlike the past, if a breach occurs now, companies are far more liable to be assessed fines/damages because of laws like SOX, HIPAA and CA regulations. Companies must spend significant efforts making sure no confidential data escapes (e.g., patient data from a hospital, credit card data from a retail store). If it does, the organization can be assessed millions of dollars in fines, incur millions in expense notifying individual users, and incur the substantial and ongoing cost of remediation and lost good will. Companies faced with these new risks must remain vigilant and employ the proper tools to assure that maximized wireless security both remains in place and is a top priority.
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