Better Safe Than Sorry

Wi-Fi is everywhere, from your meeting venues to Starbucks. And it's darned sexy, too. But is Wi-Fi always right—or safe—for meetings?

As technology advances, it's often subject to the "law of unintended consequences." For example, laptop computer screens have become incredibly big, bright, and sharp. That's great—unless a competitor is sitting near you on a plane, avidly reading your screen.

With a Wi-Fi connection, when you send information from your PC, you're transmitting data on radio waves through a local access point. Just as cordless phones can pick up other conversations, people can tap into your wireless network if it's unsecured: The phrase "war drivers" describes dedicated moochers who drive around neighborhoods and corporate parks hunting for unprotected networks.

According to Robert J. Shimonski, a networking and security expert, attacks on wireless networks fall into four categories: passive, active, man-in-the-middle, and jamming. For example, in the man-in-the-middle or "evil twin" attack, a hacker sets up a laptop to impersonate a Wi-Fi access point. It mirrors the settings of the public access point, but has a much stronger signal. Naturally, you log onto the stronger signal, so you connect to the Internet through the attacker's system, allowing him to read any data you're sending. IT managers like Jeff Nyland, director of multiservices for TotalCommunications, the service provider for the Connecticut Convention Center, often use systems to detect security breaches like the sudden arrival of a new access point.

But security is a process, not a one-time solution. For many companies, security starts inside with a virtual private network (VPN) that uses the Internet to connect remote sites or users. VPNs save on communications costs and provide additional security, using a combination of techniques like firewalls (a barrier between the VPN and the Internet), data encryption, and AAA Servers (authentication, authorization, and accounting). If your company doesn't have a VPN, individuals can sign up for their own through a company like HotSpotVPN (www.hotspotvpn.com) for as little as $8.88 per month.

Next, look at the security of a venue's wireless network. Many public access points have less security so that it's easier for users to connect. Secure Wi-Fi (www.SecureWiFi.net), an association of security pros, found 67,690 public access points in Southern California and Hawaii. Just 37.3 percent were encrypted and secure.

Fortunately, technologies abound to secure wireless networks. They include Wired Equivalent Privacy, which uses 64- or 128-bit encryption. As this doesn't offer complete security, providers usually supplement with measures like Extensible Authentication Protocol, to verify users via password, key, or biometric device.

Planners may want to offer delegates Wi-Fi access in public areas while providing wired access for meeting content, where security is paramount. The Connecticut Convention Center, then, has Ethernet jacks in every room.

Beyond security, Nyland says another basic issue is "fear of bandwidth availability." Because if 20 exhibitors use the same access point for demanding applications, response time can drop badly. He notes: "Security gets all the attention, but don't forget service quality"—still easier to guarantee through a wired Ethernet connection.

It's smart to offer Wi-Fi at your meeting; attendees crave the convenience. But make sure they know even with precautions, there are no guarantees.


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