Secure wireless Lans move a step closer with Wi-Fi Alliance

The words security and wireless Lan networks are rarely associated in the minds of IT managers but this could be changing with...

The words security and wireless Lan networks are rarely associated in the minds of IT managers but this could be changing with the formation of the Wi-Fi Protective Access (WPA) initiative by the Wi-Fi Alliance, writes Eric Doyle.

The proposed 802.11 wireless Lan standards will replace the current sign-ons, which are fairly similar across all users on a specific network. These will be replaced by more-complex security codes that will change regularly and set a time limit on hackers' attempts to break the security of the network.

Vulnerabilities have been endemic in 802.11 technologies and the alliance of companies such as IBM, Dell, Microsoft, Cisco and Agere was formed to produce standards that would address these weaknesses. The need is particularly great because wireless Lans can be set up easily by users without the knowledge of the central IT facility in a company.

Once hacked, these Lans and the corporate networks beyond can be accessed remotely from the street, using simple equipment. With 802.11 becoming a standard feature in notebooks and other portable devices, these potentially insecure systems are likely to proliferate.

The development of the WPA standards is just the first step to secure wireless Lans and. A crucial stage is implementing them in new products, currently scheduled for the middle of next year. Whether existing devices can be upgraded has yet to be clarified.

Until these standards have been ratified and instituted, IT departments will have to rely on vigilance, third-party products and good advice to keep the drive-by hacker at bay. The Wi-Fi Alliance is bridging this gap through its Web site (www.weca.net) which contains a section on current methods of securing an 802.11 installation.

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