Experts: Plan for wireless before rogue access points appear

Wireless technology is convenient and inexpensive, a potentially troubling combination for administrators, given that wireless technology is prone to security problems.

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Many IT administrators may be surprised to learn that their enterprise has a wireless local area network (LAN) in operation -- and it's the kind of discovery that gives IT cold sweats.

There's no denying that wireless networks are on the increase, especially with Starbucks, airports, hotels and private individuals jumping on the bandwagon and providing free access to the willing. If a user can log on in a coffee shop or catch someone else's access for free, why can't it be done at the office?

Rogue wireless access points are a serious security problem for IT administrators, however. Wireless networks are fairly inexpensive and easy to set up. Linksys, Siemens and D-Link Systems all sell wireless routers for between $65 and $200. So, instead of waiting for IT to get around to it, workers are setting up their own networks -- logging on, surfing and downloading -- all under the nose of IT.

Wireless demand certainly puts security administrators and IT managers in a bind. On one hand, there are users clamoring for it, but on the other, there remain serious security issues. Encryption technology in WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), which is based on static keys that can easily be deciphered by a talented hacker, puts sensitive data at risk. The upcoming Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard implements different keys for each packet, making it more secure. Still, most enterprises are not planning for wireless deployments, but are reacting instead, said Gartner Inc. analyst John Pescatore.

However, it's very clear that IT and network administrators are going to need to add wireless LANs to their "to-do" list. Better to set up a network, a security policy and education sessions first, before unsecured, rogue wireless LANs pop up. Given the appropriate education, users can learn how to safely use their mobile devices and protect their data from loss or theft.

"Don't assume that your devices are trustworthy, and make people aware of this problem," said Gartner analyst John Girard.

In short, wireless LANs don't have to be a nightmare. With the proper precautions, they can give workers greater mobility and be another secure method of communication.

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