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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Security Briefing: Wireless Networks

The following security briefing is provided by Kathy Ellis, INCOLSA Systems Specialist. Kathy has been sending out security briefings via email in installments. I thought they are very helpful information that our library community would find interesting.

Wireless Security Part 1

It is understood that you already should have a personal firewall and updated anti-virus software on your computer before even considering joining a wireless network.

When connected to wireless networks, be very, very careful. This includes any type of public access... whether you are in a hotel, on a university campus, at the airport, ballpark or in a coffee shop. And it doesn't matter whether you are paying for or getting free wireless service.

If you have a home wireless system and you haven't followed the Home Wireless Network Best Practices (which will be outlined in the next Security Briefing), you are vulnerable, too.

If you live in an apartment or multi-unit dwelling or even if you live in a free-standing home, be aware that the range of your wireless service can extend beyond your walls and be available to your neighbors. If you have a laptop equipped with a wireless card, take a walk outside your front door with it and see how far your range goes.

In a public environment (or unprotected private network), it is possible for others to 'hijack' your connection without you even knowing it. All they need is a laptop with a strong signal and a few pieces of freely-available software. In effect, another person can 'watch' everything you type and even change the information on web pages you are viewing. They are probably not going to be able to read data off your hard drive, but they will be able to grab data you send or receive, while it is in transit.

You never, never want to enter secure data into your computer while on a public (or insecure private) wireless network. This includes: credit card information, online banking information or your social security number. Don't buy things online when you're at a Starbucks or any other public network. You should never do online banking at such a locale. Even if the site you visit is protected by SSL (https:// pages) you are still vulnerable to eavesdropping or hijacking. And the person doing the hijacking doesn't need to be sitting right next to you. They could be in an apartment above the coffee shop.

If you are going to sign up for a paid-for public wireless network (such as at an airport or coffee shop) it's a really bad idea to transmit your credit card over this wireless network in order to sign up. I realize this is a real catch-22. How can you sign up without transmitting your card info when asked? One way is to do homework ahead of time and see if you can sign up online before you leave home. Some will let you call a toll-free phone number.

You also want to be careful about sending and reading email at such locales, as it too can be read by outsiders. Don't type anything you wouldn't want anybody else to see, including password or credit card information. Outsiders probably won't be able to read what's on your hard drive, but may be able to 'snag' message information as it travels from your PC to the net.

So, the rule of thumb on wireless networks is to be aware that others may be listening. Don't let them hear anything you don't want them to hear.

NEXT BRIEFING: Best Practices for a Wireless Home Network



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