Wireless Security - The Security Plan for Your Wireless LAN


Oliver Tsai sees it every quarter. Fresh-faced medical students, new to Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre and armed with the latest Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to hop right onto Sunnybrook’s wireless network with those shiny new laptops they just bought.

The same scenario plays out with doctors and office managers and anyone else whose new gadget automatically sniffs the airwaves and picks up signals from Tsai’s wireless LAN, or WLAN. "They can see what’s available, but because of the security, they can’t access the network until the device is properly configured," says Tsai, the director of IT at the academic health sciences center in Toronto. It’s a look-but-don’t-touch situation that can frustrate users—but, Tsai says, it’s a necessary, if temporary, frustration.

Whether they’re medical students, CEOs or cube dwellers, today’s mobile phone and BlackBerry-equipped workers are clamoring for even greater wireless access while on the job. It’s nearly certain that their company-issued laptop has a Wi-Fi chip built-in, and they see no reason to be shackled to their desks anymore.

Yet IT executives are still distrustful of wireless LANs because of perceived security nightmares such as wireless denial-of-service attacks and network breaches. "They are scared," says Nick Selby, an enterprise security analyst at The 451 Group. A December 2005 Forrester Research report echoes Selby’s take: Security is the number-one obstacle when acquiring wireless technologies, regardless of industry.

But some of those fears may be based on old news. "Most of the security problems that have scared away early adopters have been solved," says Selby. New authentication and encryption schemes (such as 802.1x for user access and 802.11i advanced encryption standard, or AES) are more vigorous. And vendors now offer intrusion-detection products and architectural schemes that make enterprise wireless networks just as safe as wired ones.

"Most of the things you’ll need to do [for security] will come from the vendor. It’s just a question of turning it on," adds Selby. Last year, Gartner went so far as to say that Wi-Fi was one of the most overhyped IT security threats.

So for 2006 and beyond, here are the five security areas that will help you and your users get the most from a wireless LAN—without all the nightmares.

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