Recently, I visited a good-sized company, and I needed to access my email. I flipped open my laptop, found the network, and easily guessed the password -- the name of the company. Sure, it’s convenient for visitors who have good intentions, but what about passersby who are looking for a hotspot to use for less innocuous purposes?
Most of the time, unaware individuals or mom-and-pop cafes offering free WiFi are the culprits, but corporations leave themselves vulnerable by creating wide-open hotspots, too. Here are five things that can go horribly wrong for any organization (or individual) leaving its wireless networks open:
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) don’t just go after the individual who downloads copyrighted content. Their lawyers take aim at network providers, and that includes businesses that provide network hotspots. The RIAA and MPAA can claim negligence on the part of the business for not securing their Internet access. A case filed earlier this year in Federal court could determine just how liable negligent businesses are for misuse of their corporate hotspots.
Copyright lawsuits are bad enough, but what if some miscreant is downloading child pornography or committing fraudulent acts while using your company’s hotspot? Internet service providers (ISPs) enjoy a certain amount of immunity -- but hotspot providers do not. Courts haven’t taken on this thorny issue, but they will soon enough.
Intellectual property theft.
While most of the computers on your corporate network aren’t using the hotspot, there is always that one person who is hunkered down on her laptop in the conference room. She’s connected to the wireless network, and since this is the office, she’s set the network as a “trusted” network. All it takes is a savvy miscreant to jump on the wireless network and access her files, and trade secrets or regulated documents could easily fall into the wrong hands.
Becoming a worm hotspot.
You’ve installed antivirus software on every computer on the network -- that is, every computer you control. But viruses aren't the only security threats. With an open wireless network, your servers could easily become a distribution point for worms or a home for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.
Termination of your Internet access.
Some wireless service providers can hold corporate customers responsible for violating Terms of Service (ToS) by endangering network security. If your corporate WiFi leads to security problems, your access could be terminated.
Companies do have options to avoid these problems. First and foremost, create a separate wireless hotspot for visitors. Not a single employee should be connecting to this hotspot.
Second, lock down the hotspot. You can still offer wireless access to guests, but invest in a log-in system that includes an acceptable use policy that users must agree to before they can access the Internet. (Think about when you use the WiFi at Starbucks: You have to agree to their ToS before you can check out Facebook.) This covers you in case someone decides to download the latest Twilight movie while visiting your site or using your WiFi from the parking lot.
Remember, you can be held liable for what people do with your Internet. Keep your network protected.
Some companies are unwilling to set up a separate hotspot with TOS because they don't want the expense, and others set up hotspots and password protect them (which may not be enough to protect their sensitive data). But enterprises can't afford to take these risks.
I like how you laid out the risks so clearly. Unfortunately, many companies fail to see that and are pretty careless with their networks (like the one you mentioned.) Creating a separate hotspot for visitors and setting up a log-in system for outsiders to access the network are good starting points to securing corporate WiFi.
I admit that having to obtain login information or click through as TOS agreement might be a pain sometimes, but if users really want WiFi, then there's no hurdle they won't be willing to go through.
I don't remember where I read it, but it was a gas station owner complaining about how it is that they got stuck with providing bathrooms for everyone on the highway system. That said, it's awfully convenient for travelers that, by and large, you can count on finding public restrooms at gas stations.
So what is it that is going to become the 'public wifi' provider? Starbucks? McDonald's? Something else? I've even seen some state and interstate highways provide wifi on their own at every rest stop, which is great, but it'd be nice to have it everywhere. (Of course you've got the problem of providers making municipal wifi illegal.)
The one complication is that these connections often aren't encrypted, and ISTR the EFF attorneys saying a few months back at Black Hat that there was some legal liability you opened for yourself if you didn't use encrypted connections. I don't recall what it was, though.
I'm wondering if this overlaps with consumer wifi (not corporate) too. I was told this by the technician who "installed" my internet connection. (I believe they do this for revenue purposes as it's not free. not complaining because I'm happy with the different policies by the branch of TW here than other places I've lived).
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