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Wireless insecurity: do not use the cheerleader defence

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Comment The message boards are alive with misguided advice about wireless networks. Switch off your security, they say: you’ll get away with murder.

It follows the news that the music industry has dropped a lawsuit against Tammie Marson of Palm Desert, California. Marson argued that the fact that her computer contained illegal music files downloaded over her internet connection was not proof of a crime. As a cheerleader teacher, she said, hundreds of girls passed through her house, any one of whom could have used her PC. She also ran a wireless network without security – so anyone outside her house could have used her net connection.

Observers in homes without cheerleader traffic were fascinated by the wireless defence. "I’m going to open my network to the neighbourhood,” was a typical comment. "Screw the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America]!” But think this through: suppose someone outside your house uses your connection to download child porn to a laptop, hack into a bank or launch a denial of service attack. Unless you change your router’s default settings, you’ll never know. But the police might. So they’ll impound your computer and, if they find no incriminating files, they might give it back; or suspect that you knew how to cover your tracks. It's your word against theirs. So keep your home network secure. For criminals, accessing an insecure network is as easy as putting on a balaclava.

Your office wireless network is more likely to have good security – but perhaps you should check. A quarter of business networks are unsecured, according to a recent wireless survey by RSA Security. Its tests in London this year found that 22% of access points still had default settings that put networks at risk. RSA points out that these offices are at risk of data theft and virus infection. It follows that they could also face difficult questions from police tracing terrible crimes. They might not prove anything against your company; but nor is it an investigation your business wants.

We don’t hear of such investigations today, but that could change. While the percentage of vulnerable networks is falling, it is falling slowly – and the total number of networks is rising fast. RSA reports a 73 per ecnt year-on-year rise in the number of wireless hotspots in London.

The police don’t like anonymity breaking evidential chains. Will they push for new laws that make unsecured networks illegal, or grounds for a claim that the operator is aiding and abetting the commission of a crime? After all, our Data Protection Act already has certain expectations of office networks that hold personal data. While the police don’t care about extending these expectations to protect movies and music, they do care about hacking and child porn; and right now they probably care even more about terrorist communications. At a time when air travellers can’t carry toothpaste, it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched to foresee the banning of safe havens for criminal communications.

That may or may not happen. But for now, if nothing else, fix your wireless security. Otherwise you could find yourself reported in the press as helping the police with their enquiries in connection with a terrible crime. Nobody wants that.

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

This article was orginally published in Issue 15 of OUT-LAW magazine. Register with OUT-LAW to get a free subscription.

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