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Hot and bothered

It’s a tremendous boost for productivity if an employee can file a report or do Internet research while camped out in a Starbucks on a Sunday morning. But there’s also a potential for security breaches.

Employees are more mobile than ever before, thanks to wireless connectivity, cell phones, and greater broadband access. With freedom, however, comes the need for caution. It’s a tremendous boost for productivity if an employee can file a report or do Internet research while camped out in a Starbucks on a Sunday morning. But there’s also a potential for security breaches.

Although major hotspots like coffee shop chains, and hotzones like university campuses, employ crackerjack security methods for their wireless access, that doesn’t mean every access area is a safe one. Smaller java joints or other hotspot locations may suffer from poor technology management and sloppy access control. If a laptop isn’t configured appropriately, that could mean trouble for more than the employee; it puts an entire company at risk.

Every staffer’s foray into the wireless Web of a hotspot or hotzone doesn’t have to be a reason to lose sleep, though. Laptops can be locked down safely with the right tools, and knowledge about where employees are surfing can go a long way toward prevention. Hotspots are popping up all over the country, and more employees are keen to order up a vanilla latte and get to work, so putting security into place now will save you from some nightmares later.

Higher education

At many companies, employees are given laptops that are Wi-Fi enabled, and handed dial-in numbers if they should find themselves in a hotel or conference room that doesn’t offer broadband (the horror!). What they don’t often receive is an education in how to surf safely, and ways to spot a questionable wireless environment.

This is a dangerous mistake, says Tanya Baccam, security audit expert at security training firm The SANS Institute. Putting together a security policy is important, but so is making sure that users don’t just sign it without reading it. Or indeed, understanding it.

“Having the right policies in place is a big deal,” Baccam says. “When we see a weak policy during a security audit, that’s a red flag.” She notes that with the growth in wireless, it’s crucial to specify where employees can log on and what types of security measures they should employ. A staffer who goes against written policies by tinkering with the settings of a VPN and then surfing in an insecure hotspot could put company data out into the open.

Baccam adds, “Once you have good, solid policies, you need to educate users about them. Just having the policies is no good if no one understands how to follow them.” For employees that travel a great deal and use hotspots and hotzones frequently, special attention should be given to training them on how to stay safe.

An IT department should explain that there are different types of hotspots, in order to make users more aware of security risks. Some, like major coffee shop chains, are eager to tout the level of security that they offer, and can usually be trusted.

Don McKinnon, vice president of music and entertainment for Starbucks, notes that the company is developing a great deal of content connected to its hotspot service. Customers can log on through the company’s T-1 line and get a bevy of Internet-only treats like music and video. In order to woo more customers to such a robust offering, Starbucks made it a priority to have bulletproof security in place. “We want to have Wi-Fi access as a core part of a customer’s experience,” McKinnon said. “For that, you need amazing security.”

Beyond the rock-solid security of established coffee purveyors, the hotspot security world gets murky. Julie Ask, research director for Jupiter Research says, “In general, if somebody’s using a hotspot, security is up to them. Enterprises have to educate their people about hotspot security.”

Safety gear

In addition to employee education, there’s a need for the right hardware and software mix to keep traveling laptops safe from harm or hack. Some employees may think that firewalls offer enough protection when they’re surfing outside of the office, but firewalls only protect data that’s stored on the laptop. They don’t protect data sent from a laptop through a wireless access point. What does keep that information safe is a VPN, but not all companies have automatically put VPNs on every laptop.

“There are constant updates going on in the security realm in terms of hotspots,” says Kurt Bauer, senior vice president of field operations for public access solutions provider Nomadix. “IT managers should buy security products with hotspots in mind.”

This means that on the IT shopping list should be VPNs with built-in security, or even a third-party service like HotSpot VPN. The product connects individual hotspot users to a VPN that encrypts data that’s sent from a user’s computer to a hotspot access point. From there, the information is filtered through the HotSpotVPN server and then to the Internet. This kind of solution might prove especially attractive for small and mid-size companies, since the cost per user is under $10 per month. Although a service like this one could mean a loss in performance, the speed of a T-1 connection that’s usually employed for hotspots should make it barely noticeable for most users.

Safer days ahead

While companies are learning to lock down, there’s a growing movement toward making hotspots and hotzones more secure. T-Mobile, which has about 4,000 hotspots, is proving to be very attractive to the corporate market with its recent iPass agreement. The iPass virtual Wi-Fi network lets a single user access the Internet though a software interface that has built-in security.

The T-Mobile system won’t work for everybody, because the service only works with Windows XP clients and systems that use Windows Server 2003. Still, when compared to some of the sketchy security found elsewhere, it’s considered a major step forward toward locking down wireless zones.

Until companies like T-Mobile and Starbucks get their wish for a safer hotspot that everyone will use, it’s up to individual users to make sure that they’re not putting themselves, and their companies, into danger. “Hotspots are a great trend,” Bauer says, “as long as you’re careful.”

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