March 23, 2006



Posted: 04.04

Damn the Hackers, Full Speed Ahead!

For many government agencies, the benefits of WLANs outweigh security risks.
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By Douglas McWhirter

Despite ongoing concerns over security, government agencies at all levels are embracing wireless LANs with the zeal of the newly converted. To the unfettered joy of WLAN vendors—and to the ongoing vexation of some network security experts—government interest in wireless networking technology currently mirrors, and sometimes exceeds, that of the private sector.

Consequently, budget-starved agencies are affordably expanding existing hard-wired networks—and government workers, from bureaucrats in D.C office buildings to docents at local museums, are enjoying unprecedented mobility.

“Right now, government is one of the fastest growing markets for wireless networks, and it will keep growing for years,” says Stan Schatt, research director and VP of Forrester Research. “Government officials spend a lot of time going from conference room to conference room. The flexibility of wireless is more attuned to that.”

This fact is not lost on vendors operating in the wireless LAN space. “Government is a significant market,” says Richard Stone, who manages HP’s wireless solutions group. “Most people assume that government has been lagging behind in this area, but we don’t see that.”

Government On The Go

A WLAN allows mobile workers to access a local network using a specific radio frequency. Government IT specialists, like their counterparts in private industry, leverage this technology to create hot spots, or areas where workers can pick up and transmit on the frequency to enter their agencies’ networks.

Much has been made of the 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, protocol, which is now common in locations ranging from fast food joints to city parks. Currently, the most notable government uses of Wi-Fi are in law enforcement and emergency services, where agencies leverage mobile technology pioneered by the armed forces to create hot spots over large service areas. Within these areas ambulance crews can access an IP network to transmit patient stats directly to a hospital emergency room. Police officers can perform background checks on suspects by accessing local, state and federal data banks. Mobile security staff at airports and in locations where large numbers of people are gathered can constantly utilize a growing number of security applications that are network based.

Another practical, and increasingly common, application of WLAN technology lies in the creation of fixed wireless bridges between existing government buildings by mounting a network dish on one building that can transmit radio signals to one or more different locations.

For Israel Engle, the IT director for Dorchester County in Maryland, implementing such a bridging solution was the only affordable option for providing network access to all government offices. “We are a rural county and we didn’t have enough budget to support the recurring costs of a leased-line system.” Using Cisco wireless technologies, Engle recently connected 14 county buildings on a network that ties all local government systems, and hopes to leverage the infrastructure for additional uses in the future. “The main thing we are looking at is creating hot spots for law enforcement in the field,” he says.

According to Anita Padney, business development manager for Cisco’s wireless networking business unit, such WLAN applications are just the beginning. “With today’s security concerns, government needs in this area are becoming very niche.” Padney foresees a connected future in which national border crossings become hot spots that support high tech immigration enforcement; cargo coming in and out of seaports and airports is tagged and tracked; and emergency medical teams reacting to an outbreak of disease quickly and effortlessly establish WLANs to communicate vital data to public health officials. “The opportunities in this area are growing rapidly,” she says.

Safe and Secure?

While most would agree with Padney that the business of government is in many ways a natural fit for Wi-Fi, some urge caution. In late 2002, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a draft report on the state of wireless network security. NIST experts warned government agencies that WLANs have security flaws that could give hackers and other undesirables access to sensitive government data. Although NIST did make some recommendations on how to secure these networks, the not-so-subtle message remained: Be wary of WLANs.

Traditionally, Wi-Fi has been vulnerable to security breaches in several ways. The first—and the most commonly feared—is that hackers can somehow intercept radio transmissions from within a network. Second, in the past hackers have been able to “sniff” IP addresses and sneak into the devices of mobile workers. Finally, hackers have created false access points, and tricked users into handing over user names and passwords.

As would be expected, those selling Wi-Fi technologies minimize these risks, offering various strategies for outfoxing hackers. “There is a perception that wireless LANs are not secure, that the instant you turn access on, every bit of information in a network is available to anyone sitting in a parking lot nearby,” says HP’s Stone. “Two years ago, that might have been true, but today it is not.”

The answer, he says, lies in increasingly sophisticated methods of encryption and the implementation of personal firewalls on each computer, among other strategies. “The combination of several approaches meets the security needs of most customers, including the government,” he adds.

“Security has improved, but it is still an issue,” counters Schatt. As an example, he refers to a recent incident that made the headlines in which a hacker broke into Cisco’s Lightweight Extensible Authentication Protocol, which provides username/password identification between a wireless client and a server. “This guy was a ‘white hat’ hacker who gave Cisco notice, then mounted an attack and forced his way in. Concerns over incidents like this are very real in government, and as of right now, there is no foolproof system to guard against them.”

Yet, despite such vulnerabilities, the advantages outweigh the risks for government. Says Stone, “In ten years, we are going to be astonished at what government is doing with wireless LANs.”•

Douglas McWhirter is a business writer and consultant based in Los Angeles.
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