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8/23/2005
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Review: McAfee Secures The Home WLAN

Even the experts disagree about many elements of wireless LAN security. But one thing about which most experts agree is that home users rarely implement even the most basic wireless security measures. And, if they are using their home network to connect to their work network, this lack of security endangers enterprise data.

Even the experts disagree about many elements of wireless LAN security. But one thing about which most experts agree is that home users rarely implement even the most basic wireless security measures. And, if they are using their home network to connect to their work network, this lack of security endangers enterprise data.

Enter McAfee's new $49.99 Wireless Home Network Security, which is being released today via the Web and will be available as a packaged product in early September. This impressive product provides strong security, ease of use, and compatibility across several major brands of routers and interface cards along with a feature, automatic key rotation, that typically is found on higher-end WLAN security products.

This package has only a few relatively minor shortcomings, making it worth a serious look-see by individual users and IT managers who must make sure telecommuters don't pose a risk to their company.

Simple Setup

Setting up McAfee Wireless Home Network Security is extremely fast and easy. After the installer runs, the product attempts to detect your wireless LAN. If it detects an unprotected wireless network, it asks you if you want to secure it. Clicking “Yes” begins the process, which can take several minutes on a slower computer.

If you've changed the default password on the router, you'll be prompted to enter it so that the software can communicate with the hardware. And, of course, using a non-default password is a good idea. Another caution is that, if your neighbors use the same router using the same default SSID as yours, you could inadvertently use Home Network Security to secure their network.

This, of course, is not the software's fault. Still, it's a good reminder that you should choose a non-default SSID if your router, which will prevent you from accidentally securing your neighbor's router.

Powerful Security

Perhaps the product's biggest strength of McAfee Wireless Home Network Security is its ease of use, a vitally important consideration for a home product.

The McAfee system defaults to WEP encryption, which is the least secure type of protection. The rationale behind this is that not all equipment supports the stronger WPA or WPA2, particularly older equipment. It is easy, however, to change to one of the stronger types of encryption if your equipment supports it.

McAfee secures your network primarily with strongly-generated keys. The first wireless node to connect to a router using the software generates a list of keys and posts the first key to the router using HTTP POST. Subsequent workstations that have the McAfee software is installed essentially become trusted clients of the initial workstation. Those subsequent workstations retrieve those keys from the initial workstation, which then grants access to the network. The keys rotate every three hours that a secured station is online.

Overall, this is a laudably strong system, but one caution is in order. If you are securing a network that doesn't already use encryption, you should rotate the key immediately after deploying this system. That's because the initial key is sent in the clear. Rotating the key manually is simple, requiring a simple click of the mouse.

In practice, the rotation process is invisible. Keys rotate behind the scenes mostly unnoticed, although you will see a slight hiccup in network availability when the key changes, and McAfee's control center pops up an alert. Because some network applications, like gaming or streaming media, depend on uninterrupted network connectivity, McAfee's software also allows you to suspend key rotation with a click of the mouse.

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