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Wi-Fi Security and the State of California

October 26, 2006 - 0 Comments

The California State Government recently passed a bill to mandate that manufacturers of consumer grade Wi-Fi products attach labels to warn consumers on the dangers of not securing their wireless networks. The hope is that with more visible warnings, consumers will understand the need for wireless security and take steps to enable security settings. Education is always a good thing. Thus educating consumers on the need for greater wireless security cannot be a bad idea. Still, the extent to which the government needs to be involved is up for debate. I can see the value in advising consumers on how to protect their sensitive information. Let’s face it; I don’t want my next door neighbor taking a peak every time I log in to do some online banking. Yet selfishly, as an avid”borrower” of free Wi-Fi, I hate to see too many networks locked down -for fear of never being able to find free connectivity again.The good news is that many municipalities are working diligently to provide Wi-Fi everywhere which means I won’t have to sneak about looking for free networks. Cisco is leading the push to take Wi-Fi outdoors as illustrated by the recent Silicon Valley Metro Connect win. Cisco technology will be used to deliver wireless connectivity to 2.4 million residents across 42 municipalities in Silicon Valley. But, I digress. Until such time as pervasive Wi-Fi is a reality, borrowing a few wireless bytes here and there certainly makes life easier.As a matter of principle, I have always left my personal Wi-Fi unsecured. I love the idea of Wi-Fi for the masses. A good neighbor shares his Wi-Fi. Of course, I’m quick to use my VPN for sensitive applications. But as long as my network isn’t being abused, I’m happy to promote the use of Wi-Fi by extending my service to others. Perhaps the answer lies in innovation. Imagine a consumer solution that offers the ability to segment network access for different user types. The owner segment could be secured and guaranteed a higher level of quality of service while the guest segment is open and delivers best effort service only. These types of guest services are currently offered as a standard feature within Cisco’s enterprise wireless solution. Extending them into consumer products would be technically trivial and present consumer manufacturers with another point of differentiation to fight the ever downward pricing slope.Of course, it’s fair to assume that a user who is unaware of the security risks presented by open Wi-Fi is unlikely to understand the intricacies behind guest services. Still, consumer vendors have done an okay job at making home Wi-Fi more digestible by the technically illiterate. They could certainly do the same with a guest feature. While the California government is correct in wanting to protect sensitive consumer information, let’s hope we don’t over rotate and kill what to date has been a fantastically socialist Wi-Fi experience.

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