Locking The Wireless Network - InformationWeek

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Locking The Wireless Network

Is your home or small business wireless network secure? Probably not. But not to worry, there are several methods and products available to help mend the holes.

As the popularity of wireless networks in homes and small businesses continues to soar, so do the chances that outsiders will hack unsecured networks and use them for malicious purposes.

Very few home and business owners realize the importance of securing their networks and the risks they incur by not doing so. It is often up to solution providers to solve the problem. Fortunately, several methods and products are available to help mend the holes.

Michael Young, principal at Connected Homes, a San Jose, Calif.-based home integrator, says the starting point is often helping customers realize the implications of not securing their wireless networks.

"You try not to scare people too much, but they need to realize [the impact]," Young says. For example, Young notes that a home's unsecured wireless network could be used by a neighbor for downloading copyrighted material. It is often difficult to determine who on a network downloaded particular files, so the network owner could be sued by the Recording Industry Association of America or other organizations.

Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, says there haven't yet been cases of homeowners in the United States prosecuted for the activities of other users who access their WLANs to conduct criminal activity. "However, it could lead to that house being the first step in the investigation," Bankston notes.

In March, an Illinois man was arrested after police noticed him sitting with a laptop in a car outside a nonprofit agency's building. The man was accessing the Internet through the organization's wireless network, and was charged with remotely accessing another computer system without the owner's approval and fined $250.

Small businesses with unsecured WLANs may also be leaving open doors that can lead into the corporate network, says Greg Starr, principal at See-Comm, a New Boston, Texas, integrator. "If someone gets through the WLAN connection, they could potentially get to the company's servers. These companies are leaving themselves wide open to a number of different types of attacks by not enabling security on their wireless networks," Starr says.

Even home users are at risk if they access their employers' secured systems via unsecured wireless networks. Attackers can use the network to gain access to the corporate systems.

One problem is that people generally don't keep up with changing passwords and settings on their home and SOHO WLANs, says Robert Cox, principal at Cox Network and PC Services, a Bel Air, Md.-based integrator. Integrators can easily boost customers' WLAN security by disabling SSID and setting up encryption keys to be changed on a regular basis, Cox says. VPNs also are helpful for creating secure remote connections.

Cox notes that the wireless signals in products from some vendors, such as Buffalo Technology, Hawking Technologies and SMC, can be modified so they don't go beyond the building's walls. While customers sometimes don't want the extra expense for such access points, the investment is usually worthwhile.

Aaron Fuhrman, an engineer at Home Technologies, a Bellevue, Wash., integrator, says his company frequently limits the broadcast range of WLANs through power and antenna adjustments. "You can use a directional antenna so it only covers a building instead of radiating the signal in a 360[-degree] pattern," he explains.

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