Security warning flags for newer wireless technology

Warning bells ring for still-emerging wireless technologies such as RFID

RSA, the security division of EMC, has completed its annual wireless survey, and the news is mixed. Wireless adoption is moving briskly in the post-WEP era, with advanced encryption gaining ground, yet there have been some minor setbacks. There are also some potential warning flags for still-emerging wireless technologies, such as RFID.

The survey of London, New York, and Paris found that growth rates were strong, with a significant uptake for advanced encryption, but with anywhere from one-fifth to one-quarter of business wireless networks in these cities being wide open. Interestingly, the use of default settings did not show dramatic change, at anywhere from a low of 13 percent in Paris to a high of 30 percent in London.

Although there is no data for Canadian cities, Toffer Winslow, RSA's vice-president of product management and product marketing, expects that the overall trends would be similar given the proliferation of hotspots here.

"Recent adopters tend to be more SMB-oriented," says Winslow, suggesting this might explain the persistence of default settings, "but there are a lot of small firms out there with really valuable data."

Mark Tauschek, senior rResearch analyst at Info-Tech Research Group, agrees. "Most large and mid-sized organizations do it right," he said. "In-house IT departments are cognizant of security. Fortunately, as you move into small- and mid-sized companies, you see wireless security being addressed a lot better than it was even a few years ago."

"This is also an awareness campaign," says Winslow. "Best practices for set-up and configuration need to be followed. The industry knows that WEP isn't good enough, but it's still out there. Fortunately, we are seeing significant implementations of 802.11i and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)."

David Senf, manager of Canadian application development and infrastructure software research at IDC Canada, notes that security confidence is higher this year than last in Canadian organizations, despite more attacks.

"The data specific to wireless is interesting," says Senf, "because security areas of concern were closely clustered, with the top three being Web-facing databases, physical security, and Web applications. By contrast, wireless security was fourth on the list, and decidedly second-tier."

From RSA's perspective, not surprisingly, the tie-in is with EMC and information lifecycle management. The message isn't that everything must be completely secure at all times, but that security is integrated into a continuum from information creation, to use, to storage, and ultimate discarding.

"We feel that information is an organization's most precious asset," says Toffer, "yet our research indicates that 80 percent of organizations don't feel that their information is adequately protected."

Bob Moroz, president of RFID Canada, which has deployed more than 100 systems in the past 10 years, points out that some data is higher risk than others. "The majority of customers have security concerns," he says, "but these differ whether it is for manufacturing work in progress, asset tracking, agriculture, or hospitals for supply replenishment. Obviously, personal identification and security is central for access control and payment."

Tauschek takes a cautious approach. "Gen 2 RFID allows for encryption on any tag, and that's where we should be," he says. "The problem is it takes up space, and tags have limited storage."

History has not been kind to RFID. Last February a Dutch security firm hacked an RFID-tagged passport. The year before that, security experts at John's Hopkins University hacked both Texas Instruments Digital Signature Transponder (DST) and Exxon Mobil's Speedpass electronic payment system, logically assuming that car thieves would want a free fill-up.

"Perhaps the best known," says Tauschek, "was in 2004 when Lukas Grunwald hacked RFID chips and, using a program he co-wrote called RFDump, changed the pricing on items in a supermarket."

Tauschek points out that the problem is really with tags that have read-write capabilities as opposed to the static read-only tags, which are cheap and disposable. The re-use appeal of read/write is significant, and Gen 2 RFID provides the security, but companies may not want to shell out the extra money.

The hope is that as the Wal-Marts and Targets start using RFID, encryption will become a de facto standard. The state of RFID is less mature than wireless LANs, and there is no law forcing companies to adopt Gen 2.

Moroz points out that ISO 14443 has established a standard for the RFID transponder, and that this has built-in encryption. You can't read the transponder if you are more than 10 centimeters away, which makes it pretty hard for people in mini-vans to hack. As well, the RFID tag is inductively coupled and must be energized to be read. "It's kind of like starting a car," says Moroz, "those applications have been pretty well addressed."

In the next few years, however, use of the technology will explode, and security and privacy concerns will follow. RFID will move from warehouses to retail have contact with consumers, and be used in speed passes for gasoline and access cards for buildings and cars.

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