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Archive for Thursday, December 13, 2001

THE MAG: Spinning the Web - Cutting the cord

Wireless offers benefits and risks for Internet users

December 13, 2001

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This week your intrepid correspondent is coming to you from a secret location, deep underground, surrounded by unusual people, exotic aromas and strange music. The iced tea's not bad though.

From this remote spot, which must remain undisclosed under threat of expulsion, I'm employing the latest high-tech computer hardware to transmit and receive digital information to and from the command center back at my home base of the World Company News Center.

A compact "wireless network interface card" inserted in my laptop computer is communicating with a "wireless access point" cleverly mounted to the ceiling of my hideout. That device is in turn wired to the "local area network" here, which is connected to the "Internet" through the employment of a "cable modem."

I know this all sounds very scientific and complicated like something right out of the 21st century but it's not science fiction. I'm out in the field, connected to the world without a single wire restricting my mobility. I can remain unwired here for as long as my battery and my bladder hold out.

Where, might you ask, did I get my hands on this technology? Um well, I picked up the wireless card for my laptop a couple of weeks ago at Office Depot.

Wire-tapped

OK, so basically anyone can go wireless for a few bucks and a little patience with the configuration thanks to what's become the standard in wireless networking. Known technically as 802.11b but more prosaically as wlan or Wi-Fi, the wireless standard holds great promise for the future of unencumbered connectivity.

When I bought the card I also purchased a wireless access point for my home network. Now I can wander freely about my palatial estate and remain e-mail and Web enabled. I can surf for recipes and research the Zen of motorcycle maintenance in the garage. I can download MP3s on the deck under the stars at night. Isn't that just beautiful?

The decision to go wireless was abetted by the realization that the way-cool Apple Airport hubs at work for the i-Books and Powerbooks are in fact regular 802.11b devices and my wireless card would be functional there as well.

As I began to read about Wi-Fi I learned that the mundane applications for which I intended to use my card represented the tip of the wireless iceberg. As more laptop users acquire cards for use on their home and office networks, other entrepreneurs have recognized that this group of computer users represents a business opportunity.

The consumer that needs mobile connectivity is undoubtedly an "early adopter" in marketing geek speak, and one that probably does a good deal of business traveling and doesn't care to be disconnected for very long.

Several companies have envisioned "corridors of connectivity" which include airports, hotels, conference centers and coffee shops. These companies' business models hinge on the belief that wireless customers will pay to gain access to their service points in these locations.

Another model revolves around the business that would host the wireless hub, simply buying one and connecting it to their Internet connection (as in the case of my present, secret location) on the theory that free wireless access would simply attract traffic to their places of business.

Both models are viable under the proper circumstances, though MobileStar, the early leader in the fee-for-service model, has already become a casualty of an as-yet unrealized consumer demand for such a service. Other similar outfits, such as Wayport (www.wayport.com), continue to build their nationwide networks.

Across the United States, more than 500 Starbucks locations are wireless-friendly. Although the long-term outlook of the Starbucks' rollout is uncertain due to the slow-motion demise of MobileStar, its once, but not future, wireless partner.

Another enthusiastic consumer of Wi-Fi technology is the world of academia. Universities, many with older, far-flung buildings in which they need to provide access, find wireless' capability to accomplish this without drilling a single hole or pulling a foot of cable attractive and are embracing these tools.

Bringer of war

Wi-Fi is not without a serious downside. Many system administrators and others concerned about the security and integrity of their networks and chilled by the rapid, and often careless adoption of wireless. With wireless the potential for intrusion now exists without the need for any physical connection to their networks whatsoever.

While a certain amount of security is provided in the configuration software for wireless devices by allowing connections to the access points only by approved wireless cards, and built in encryption, these capabilities are not usually enabled in the default configuration. Thus, many access points go into service with these security measures disabled. The upshot of this state of affairs is the rapid growth of a delightful new geek hobby, "war driving."

War driving takes its name from the older practice of "war dialing," the brute force practice of having a computer rapidly dial thousands of phone numbers in search of modem tones, as seen in the '80s movie "War Games." War driving is the manner of traveling about, usually in a car with a laptop using a wireless card and software such as NetStumbler (www.netstumbler.com), in search of unsecured wireless access points. With the addition of a portable GPS device, NetStumbler logs not only the addresses of vulnerable access points but also their precise locations.

Some war drivers are merely curious nerds on safari (pasadena.net/vacation), others are Samaritans that report vulnerabilities to administrators. But some of these hobbyists may be less altruistic and in search of free Internet access. The most nefarious snoops could be seeking and finding entry into vulnerable networks for whatever it is that nefarious snoops do.

While wireless promises unprecedented convenience for computer users and administrators, many are letting convenience charge ahead of sound practices. Rest assured, stricter security tools and methods are being developed and will be implemented. In the meantime, anyone with about $1,500 to spare can equip themselves as would-be wireless spies.

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