For wireless to grow, better security needed

Wireless hot spots for Internet access are all the rage for many on-the-road IT users but are they secure enough for companies to allow their use with critical business applications?

That was the topic Tuesday of a panel discussion at the second annual CeBIT America 2004 conference at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in N.Y., where experts from several wireless technology companies mulled over the security and safety of hot-spot usage by corporate IT workers.

While security always remains a concern with wireless access, the panelists agreed, there are ways to ensure that safe use — and continued vigilance can keep it that way.

“Love [the] access, but don’t trust it … and secure it,” said Frederick Felman, vice-president of marketing at firewall and security software company Zone Labs Inc. in San Francisco. Many large businesses are already incorporating hotspot wireless access into their mobile strategies, he said, and they are finding ways to make it secure using policy management and service providers who take their security seriously.

“In the ’90s, IT wanted to give more access to applications” over the Web, Felman said. “Now, we want to make them more secure.”

Fellow panelist Ike Nassi, chief technology officer at FireTide Inc., a wireless networks vendor in Los Gatos, Calif., argued that virtual private networks could also be used to ensure security for hot-spot access, but Felman disputed that view.

“Hackers have huge networks of PCs, and they’re usually yours and mine,” Felman said, referring to hardware that may have been compromised. “Wireless networks are scary, but wired networks are scary, too.” Panelist Sai Subramanian, vice-president of product marketing and strategic marketing for Navini Networks Inc. in Richardson, Tex., said hot-spot use is now so important a tool for many IT workers that new methods will have to be created to boost security.

“In the enterprise setting, as long as people want the freedom of wireless, Wi-Fi will work,” Subramanian said. “In the enterprise context, wireless makes perfect sense.”

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