Consumer tech at work a threat and an opportunity

It's here to stay so get used to it, says Frank Hayes

Last week, I saw a plug-and-play web camera. OK, you've seen things called that before, but this was different. It works like this: You plug a gateway device into a network. You switch on the battery-powered camera. You push one button. Now you have a palm-sized device beaming live images onto your network.

It's 30 seconds of setup, then an endless security nightmare.

Did I mention that although the gateway device plugs into a wired network connection, the camera itself is wireless? And it can transmit up to 30 metres inside a building to the gateway?

So at US$299 (available this summer from a start-up called Avaak under the name Vue Personal Video Network), practically any disgruntled user is capable of real-time, corporate espionage. He sticks a tiny camera on a conference room wall and suddenly he can see what he's not supposed to see. Aim it at "eyes only" documents and suddenly they're no longer so confidential.

How can something so cheap be potentially so costly to you?

And it will be, if you're blindsided by this device. If you just do occasional scans for rogue devices, plenty of video could be transmitted beyond the firewall before you spot that gateway on the network.

However, if you know about the Vue and how it works, it's not tough to manage. The camera transmits to the gateway, which sends the video to Avaak, which makes it available to the user through a web page. Block the outbound traffic to Avaak's servers and you've neutralised the threat. (Well, you'll still have a disgruntled user out there to deal with. But you'll have handled the technology issue).

Of course, if you know about the Vue, you can also use it as a cheap and quick way to set up a temporary security camera. Or as an ad hoc videoconferencing system. Or as a tool for supporting a user, when controlling his PC remotely isn't enough.

That's the thing about cheap consumer tech in the midst of a recession: it can be a royal pain at a time when we don't have spare money in the budget to keep the technology from causing trouble. Or it can be an easy, inexpensive way to solve problems at a time when we don't have spare money in the budget to do it the way we'd like.

Here's another example: Symantec is working on a consumer version of its remote-control product, pcAnywhere. Currently dubbed Project Guru, it's designed for power users and IT people who are called on to solve the PC problems of family and friends. Typical scenario: Mom gets an email from her son the techie and downloads a simple remote-control client, and then he can take control of her PC through a Symantec web site.

It's cheap, it's easy and it's highly dangerous, in a world where spammers regularly get users to download malware and upload financial information. Yet, it could also be a great way to handle remote tech support on employees' home PCs that are used for work.

And another one: Citrix is now beta-testing GoView, which makes it easy to record a user's screen session; the video is automatically streamed to host servers at Citrix, where it can be accessed by anyone with the right URL. See the training possibilities? See the security threat?

Look, you can't stop potentially dangerous consumer tech from existing. But you can keep up on it. (I saw these three at the Demo 09 show; video of them is at the web site) You can learn how to keep it in check. Maybe you can even get productive use out of it.

Just make sure you see it before your users do.

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Tags managementsecurityconsumer technology

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