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Ripe for the Picking?

One way or another, wireless technology has already taken root at most companies, but uncontrolled growth could hurt the bottom line. And did we mention the security risks?

If you’re wondering whether it’s time for your company to join the wireless revolution, we have some news for you: it already has, for better and worse. During the past few years, thousands of cell phones, BlackBerry devices, pagers, wireless PDAs, and wireless-enabled laptops have almost certainly made their way into your company — sometimes authorized, but more often not.

Rogue Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity, which can transmit data at relatively high speeds across short distances) access points have been set up on networks without any encryption in place, and right now one of your employees may be sitting in an airport Starbucks checking his E-mail and even downloading company sales figures or other sensitive data. The question is not whether you’re ready for wireless: it’s whether you can still tame the tiger before it eats you alive.

Luckily, there’s still time to regain control. New technologies now make wireless devices just as secure as those on traditional networks — as long as you remember to activate them — and stronger security standards are being introduced each day. That same spirit of innovation is also affecting the cost of wireless, as expenses become easier to rein in. And more-robust management tools can now merge wireless networks into your overall IT architecture more seamlessly than ever.

With a number of interesting wireless applications on the horizon, now is the time to lay a proper foundation so that the convenience and productivity enhancements your employees have already embraced don’t hamper your efforts to maximize this fast-evolving technology.

Wireless networks, be they public (as with the Wi-Fi access points available at airports, Starbucks, and many other places) or private (wireless local-area networks, or WLANs, which are gaining ground within the walls of Corporate America as a fast, convenient way to keep everyone connected), are often painted as prime ground for hackers. Security experts claim that anyone with a good understanding of wireless IP networks, a wireless-enabled laptop, and the right software (readily available on the Internet) can pluck precious data from the ether.

Various efforts to better encrypt the contents of wireless transmissions are under way. The IEEE Standards Association, a technology standards-setting body, recently approved a new wireless security protocol, the catchily named 802.11i. The protocol should offer more-robust protection than the existing Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard commonly in use on most wireless networks.

Meanwhile, the Portland, Oregon-based Trusted Computing Group, a standards body that includes Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and VeriSign, is working on what it calls the Trusted Network Connect standard, which will allow wireless devices and wireless-enabled PCs to be properly authorized and certified as secure before they are allowed to connect to a particular network. That standard is expected to be announced some time before the end of the year and implemented in products beginning next year.

But experts say that the current WEP encryption standard can be effective if it’s used properly. Problems crop up when the encryption, which may be turned off on commercial applications, isn’t activated or is not updated on a regular basis. “The biggest breaches are people violating policy,” versus the limits of the technology itself, according to Al Delattre, a managing partner in Accenture’s electronics and high-tech practice.

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