Magazine article Risk Management

Into Thin Air: Preventing Wireless Data Theft

Magazine article Risk Management

Into Thin Air: Preventing Wireless Data Theft

Article excerpt

Nowadays, every well-organized executive has a PDA to keep track of appointments, receive e-mail and communicate with the company computer system. These devices can hold an enormous amount of information, including sales presentations, business contacts or notes on contract negotiations. But there is a downside. PDAs, like laptop computers, can also provide an open door to the company's computer system.

Analog cell phone users were rudely surprised when they learned, some years ago, that anyone with rudimentary electronic equipment could eavesdrop on their conversations. The advent of digital cellular technology has largely solved this problem, but it persists (and even worse so) for PDAs, laptops and notebook computers with wireless networking capabilities. Unlike cell phones, which transmit signals only during operation, the access ports on wireless networks transmit a continuous radio signal that anyone can pick up with a laptop, a wireless adapter and wireless scanning software. Once captured, the signal leads straight to its computer system.

By mounting an antenna on their car, hackers can locate the wireless networks in an area simply by driving around until their equipment picks up the signal being shared by a poorly secured wireless unit. After that, intruders can quickly break into the unit and search for the user's passwords and financial information. Or they may use the unit to access the organization's main computer system and steal intellectual property, trade secrets, bidding strategies or financial data. Another likelihood is the intruder simply wants to hijack the company's communications, either to hack its web page or to use its e-mail servers to distribute illicit sales pitches or pornography.

Eliminating wireless security problems is not simple, but to reduce the risks of wireless technology, here are some common-sense steps organizations can take:

Education. When it comes to wireless computer security, the biggest threats are often the company's own employees. They use their laptops in public places where snoops can read their screens, leave their notebooks and PDAs behind on planes and trains, and fail to keep their antivirus protection up to date. Some even tape their password to the unit. …

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