Just Grab It Out of Thin Air

New security concern: It's not only the ozone layer that has a gaping hole.

Security experts got a scare recently after a hole was found in an encryption code, allowing hackers to easily snatch transmissions passing through wireless networks.

The vulnerabilities were discovered in the 802.11b wired equivalent privacy (WEP) protocol, which lets notebooks or devices connect wirelessly to local area networks.

A team of computer scientists at the University of California at Berkeley found the flaws in the WEP encryption algorithm, which is supposed to protect wireless communications against eavesdropping and prevent unauthorized access to wireless networks.

The WEP algorithm relies on a secret key that is shared between a mobile device and an access point. In practice, most 802.11b system administrators use a single key that is shared among all devices and access points. This crude technique is like having one password for every device on a LAN—an open invitation to hackers. Worse, an intruder can intercept wireless LAN transmissions from a car parked in front of a building.

The researchers described four ways to defeat WEP in order to decrypt wireless communications or gain unauthorized access to a network "using only inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment." Their findings, which a can be found at www. isaac.cs.berkeley.edu, recommend that people using an 802.11b wireless network add other security measures to protect their wireless network.

Coincidentally, the wireless sector is playing an important role for Cisco Systems. Last month, it introduced a security measure to prevent wireless snooping with the rollout of the Aironet 350 family of wireless LAN bridges, access points and client adapters. Aironet 350 systems use the Extensible Authentication Protocol and IEEE 802.11x, a proposed standard for controlled LAN port access, to provide single-session WEP keys and authenticate unique user IDs.

The Aironet 350 family also features 100-milliwatt transmission power, providing up to twice as much area coverage as other wireless LAN products. The access points can draw power directly from Ethernet cable.

To help support its wireless efforts, Cisco was expected to unveil today (Feb. 12) its Wireless LAN Specialization certification program for reseller partners. "Customers in the small- and midsize-business and enterprise markets are turning to channel partners for guidance on how to employ the flexibility, mobility and cost-savings benefits of wireless LAN products," says Tushar Kothari, VP of Worldwide Channels at Cisco.

Reseller partners in Ciscos new program can earn more credibility for having a proven expertise in Cisco end-to-end wireless LAN solutions, says Kothari.

Despite all the previous hype, not all is secure in wireless.