How to fortify your wi-fi network users

Katherine Walsh gives some tips

Any CSO knows corporate LANs are inherently more secure than public wi-fi. They also know that proprietary or confidential information probably passes over wi-fi networks every day.

Employees connect to hot spots in airports and hotels while on business travel, they access the internet through their home router while working from home and they use public wi-fi to check company email while taking a coffee break at Starbucks. It's essentially impossible for anyone in today's business climate to completely avoid public networks. But there are things you and your employees can do — a combination of awareness, education and policy — to mitigate the risk and keep your company's IP safe.

Public wi-fi users face two dangers:

Sniffing: "If you're connected to an open wireless network and not using a sophisticated authentication or encryption scheme, anyone in the vicinity could [potentially] see what you're transmitting," says Amit Sinha, CTO at web security and monitoring vendor AirDefense. For example, according to Sinha, if you're checking email without a high layer of encryption like HTTPS or SSL, hackers have the ability to capture those wireless packets and recreate the emails you're sending back and forth. Encryption makes it almost impossible for someone to decipher that information, but for the majority of hot spots, unencrypted transactions are the norm.

Phishing: public wi-fi is a breeding ground for the act of wireless phishing, says Sinha, thanks to an attack known as an "evil twin". In this scenario, someone forces connections to a wireless network that looks legit but isn't. A hacker could use wireless phishing tools like HotSpot or Karma to become a man in the middle and intercept communications from other computers, says Sinha.

These threats are pervasive, according to Ken Dulaney, a vice president and analyst at Gartner. There's not much you can do to authenticate and encrypt on a public wi-fi network because you don't control the access point. But you do control the endpoint. Taking a few general precautions will keep you safe, say Dulaney and Sinha.

Make sure laptops are properly patched. Keep antivirus systems running and up to date. Enforce use of a VPN. This will ensure that the information being transferred over the network is encrypted and undecipherable to potential sniffers.

If you take these preventive measures, there should be little problem with wi-fi, says Dulaney.

Finally, remind employees to secure their home networks. Since the home access point and network belong to them, they can set up proper encryption mechanisms, like Wi-fi Protected Access (WPA).

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