Wide Open Wi-Fi

You know you have to protect your wireless networks from hackers, but you also have to protect it from your employees … and yourself. Recently I visited a friend of mine, a top attorney dealing in privacy compliance and litigation. As she sat...


You know you have to protect your wireless networks from hackers, but you also have to protect it from your employees … and yourself.

Recently I visited a friend of mine, a top attorney dealing in privacy compliance and litigation. As she sat at her wireless laptop with her trusty Palm Pilot and cell phone nearby, I asked her how she secured her wireless devices. “I have no idea,” she replied. “The firm gave me this laptop fully loaded with a wireless card and 30 minutes of training. No one explained anything about wireless security.”

“But you deal in privacy violations,” I said. “Aren’t you afraid that someone might illegally access your laptop or one of your other wireless devices and get information that's supposed to be private?”

“I haven’t really spent any time thinking about that,” said my friend. “After all, we have a security administrator who takes care of all of that, and since I’m totally ignorant about all things technical, it’s probably better if I don’t get involved.”

Companies are increasingly adopting wireless communications for their employees. The security administrator is responsible for securing communications, but wireless options offer employees a plethora of ways to circumvent security policy, intentionally or unintentionally. That’s bad news when most employees, like my lawyer friend, remain uneducated or undereducated about the possibilities of security violations.

The Wireless Threat
Simply by being airborne, your WLAN opens itself to intruders and attacks. The 802.11 standard from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defines the physical layer and media access control (MAC) layer for WLANs. All the base stations, or access points to the network, communicate with each other using the 802.11, or Wi-Fi, protocol. It operates at a 2.4-GHz frequency that is unregulated by governments and that the walls of buildings cannot completely constrain.

According to Rob Markovich, president and CEO of Network Chemistry, “Malware and hackers target WLANs because they are the new low-hanging fruit of the IT world. It’s relatively easy to exploit an open AP or divert a laptop to a hacker’s wireless device.”

Sometimes Users Open the Door
There are many types of wireless threats, some of which are facilitated by improper employee use.

  • Problem: Sniffing.

This is a common threat. Any eavesdropper who can listen to wireless transmissions can pick up unencrypted messages. Sniffing no longer requires highly specialized technical skills. Sophisticated and easy-to-use sniffers make the process relatively simple. A packet sniffer captures all packets leaving over single or multiple ethernet connections, analyzes them and reveals the data inside. Capturing packets containing user IDs and passwords is a relatively simple way to steal an authorized user’s identity. Since the wireless LAN user is not restricted to the physical area of the company or to a single access point, WLANs can permit unauthorized users access from public locations that offer no protection.

  • Solution. By using monitoring software or VPN-like encryption and network management features, you can tighten and enforce strong access control to the corporate network. Companies such as Senforce and Bluesocket provide such solutions.
  • Problem: Denial of Service Attacks (DoS).

DoS attacks pose a real threat even when attackers cannot gain access to a WLAN. During a DoS, attackers flood the WLAN with static noise that causes wireless signals to collide and produce CRC errors. Such attacks significantly slow or shut down the WLAN. WLAN users can even cause unintentional DoSs by concurrently using a 2.4-GHz cordless phone or placing access points near devices that generate interference, such as microwaves.

  • Solution. Monitoring WLANs and discovering performance problems is a first step in dealing with DoS attacks. Network Chemistry, Apani and Broadcom all provide products that help prevent DoS attacks.
  • Problem: Rogue APs.
This content continues onto the next page...