Wi-Fi Security - It's Time to Care About It

Wi-Fi Security - It's Time to Care About It Image Credit: Accuris Networks

Those horror films where evil shadows lurk in the darkness is sort of like using public Wi-Fi networks today -- bad things can happen to unsuspecting victims. But many wireless users still fire up their devices in coffee shops and other public places without realizing their susceptibility to eavesdropping and worse. In fact, one recent survey revealed that 78% of those performing wireless connectivity outside the home or office rely mainly on free Wi-Fi connections -- which are typically provided without encryption and offer immediate access without a password or key.  Most users -- 85% in the case of those using 3G or 4G mobile connections -- just aren't concerned about hotspot security. [1]

They should be. Consider a recent experiment in which a hacker entered a cafe and within 20 minutes of being connected to the network, knew where everyone then online was born, what schools they attended and their recent search histories. With just a bit more effort, he could have retrieved their passwords, stolen their identities and plundered their bank accounts.[2]

Then there's voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi). As seen in Apple's new iOS 8 and quickly supported by carriers such as T-Mobile, Sprint and others, it's easy to understand the appeal of VoWiFi -- better coverage and call quality at an attractive price. But what isn't appealing is the usual Wi-Fi security issues, now passed on to voice data.

If only the average public Wi-Fi user was as concerned about security as big corporations. All the well-publicized government hacking has caused 2014 to be dubbed "the year of encryption" as firms like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others are now busily encrypting everything they can. But this security paranoia still hasn't infected the average user, it seems -- other than those who have been hacked.

Fortunately, as technology keeps leapfrogging forward, organizations like the Wi-Fi Alliance and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) are looking out for the user's need for security. The Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint program (also called Hot Spot 2.0) creates secure authentication for hotspots and WBA's Next-Generation Hotspot (NGH) program delivers a public Wi-Fi experience that's as easy and secure as that on cellular networks.

For example, at this year's Mobile World Congress, we teamed with Cisco, AT&T and a host of mobile operators to establish a Next-Generation Wi-Fi Hotspot at the conference. Attendees at the conference were able to securely, automatically connect to the Wi-Fi network without cumbersome passwords or pop-ups.

It’s important that someone acts as the gatekeeper when it comes to Wi-Fi security, there is a strong need to plug the gap between cellular and Wi-Fi networks while making the handoff easy and highly secure. There are many technologies out there but utilizing subscriber SIM credentials as the means of authenticating users on any Wi-Fi network for data, voice and messaging services offers the most secure way of doing this. The challenge for the market is to make any type of Wi-Fi access technology work as a full extension of GSM, CDMA or cable networks for billing, policy and authentication so that users don’t know they are moving to a new network just that they enjoy the same secure service.

We understand that many users can't be bothered with all the security rigmarole -- knowing and typing in passwords and PINs and all that -- to access the magic of Wi-Fi. The key for carriers is to secure users without them being aware of it. Since a user's SIM card contains a cryptographic key, the best solution is to use it and let it act like a silent traffic cop, communicating with cellular networks to prove the user's digital identity.

Extending the security of cellular networks to insecure Wi-Fi networks and seamlessly doing the same authentication and authorization will become a moot point for carriers in the coming years. Will the benefit justify the investment in the infrastructure. When it comes to VoWiFi, the technologies need to comply with emerging security standards in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) -- an important telecom standards organization -- that carriers will implement. In simple terms, vendors need to ensure military-grade encryption when tunneling into the mobile core for network connectivity.

With big companies becoming more manic about security, as a result of government spying efforts, it's comforting to know that whether it's for Wi-Fi or VoWiFi, there are solutions out there providing the critical technology to enable seamless authentication and authorization at public Wi-Fi hotspots and make sure any connection is secure without subscribers breaking a sweat over forgotten passwords. This has obvious appeal to the carriers, service providers and equipment vendors that can now protecting their subscribers' voice and data information in any Wi-Fi network.

Maybe it doesn't matter that users never see the horror lurking in the shadows because the telecom industry can use the newest market technology to make sure it never arrives.

Robbie Ryan joined Accuris Networks in 2003 as principal architect where he oversees the design and development of new technology. Robbie came to Accuris Networks via an acquisition of Aldiscon by Logica, where he was a lead systems architect and a member of the core design team for the messaging division. Prior to joining Aldiscon, Robbie was a software engineer with Critical Path, a leading provider of X.400 messaging solutions. Robbie holds a doctorate in chemistry and a graduate degree in science from the National University of Ireland.


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