Safe! (For Now)

A band-aid for your security until the real thing comes along

Wireless computer networks based on the 802.11b and 802.11a standards are fast, cheap--and easy to hack. More-secure 802.11i hardware is at least a year away. But an interim specification from the Wi-Fi Alliance standards body called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) should make it tougher for airborne invaders to crack Wi-Fi networks.

WPA offers better ways to filter out unauthorized users and stiffens encryption to block snoopers from reading intercepted messages. Unlike some proprietary solutions, WPA encryption works across all brands of equipment.

You will have to replace every Wi-Fi card and access point on your network or upgrade them with WPA software. "It's all or nothing," warns Keith Waryas, IDC wireless research director, who is concerned that WPA encrypts only message bodies, leaving headers vulnerable to crackers.

Header encryption isn't a serious issue, says David Cohen, who chairs the Wi-Fi Alliance's Security Committee: "WPA is not a small tweak. It's going from an unlocked screen door to a bank vault."

WPA hardware and software upgrades should arrive at about what you're used to paying, but expect to see it on high-end gear first. Also, to fully exploit WPA protection, you should buy a dedicated authentication server. Or you can wait until mid-2004, when 802.11i hardware will offer still better authentication and encryption.

Mark Henricks is Entrepreneur's "Smart Moves" columnist.

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