Warning: Using unlicensed wireless networks could be so damaging to the safety of your data that industry experts are suggesting the need for a Surgeon General-like warning label.
Regulators, private industry and law enforcement widely agree that data networks—wireless and wireline alike—will forever be vulnerable to attack. The difference with wireless technology, some in industry say, is that users have no idea just how vulnerable it is.
“[Wireless application protocol] protection is virtually useless, and I dont think consumers are aware of it,” said Jacob Christfort, chief technology officer and vice president of Product Development at Oracle Corp. Speaking at a forum on unlicensed wireless networks Tuesday, Christfort said he could support regulation requiring network providers to display a cautionary label, such as those shown on alcohol and tobacco products.
As hotspots and other unlicensed wireless technologies proliferate, there are growing threats to data protection from information brokers, industrial spies, and “bad apple” divorce attorneys seeking data on their clients exes, according to Ted Phillip, senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. However, wireless LAN users, often equating wireless access with traditional telephony, can have a false sense of security about the privacy of their information.
“The money part of the equation is really starting to pick up,” Phillips said at the forum sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Washington. “We have to face the fact that there is a growing and increasingly severe threat thats going to be out there. It actually scares me, and Ive been at this for a while.”
Apart from small regulatory fixes such as the warning label idea, industry representatives generally oppose more intrusive federal initiatives to secure wireless technologies. One reason is that the possibilities for anonymity in wireless networks make it easy for sophisticated offenders to dodge enforcement. Criminals can buy inexpensive computers and wireless access cards and then quickly dispose of them, making it impossible to track crimes.
WLANs remain a noted concern in the federal government, and the Administration has toyed with ways of promoting better security. The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace holds agencies responsible for implementing risk management processes and security controls. The government is particularly concerned about the problem of anonymity in attacks on national security, said Paul Nicholas, director of Critical Infrastructure Protection at the Homeland Security Council.
“Attacks happen and you dont know where theyre coming from,” Nicholas said, adding that increased funding for security technology research and increased information-sharing would help.
For private enterprises, many in industry maintain that sufficient methods exist to secure WLANs as needed.
“802.11 security is not a big concern because we can deal with it if we need to for certain applications,” Oracles Christfort said. “802.11b is like walking on an unlighted street at night. You can do it, but you better know where youre going.”
Displaying a rising profile in wireless telecommunication, the IT industry is pressing the government to make more spectrum available for unlicensed use. However, the most useful bands of the electromagnetic frequencies are already being used, and the incumbents—from cellphone operators to the Department of Defense—are lobbying hard to keep what they have and get more.
“The fundamental problem we have here today is that spectrum is artificially scarce. It is mandated scarcity,” said Peter Pitsch, government affairs officer at Intel Corp.
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