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Opinion: VoIP security industry -- guilty as charged

VoIP is, in essence, a time bomb, poised for a massive exploit

By Paul Simmonds
November 20, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Network World - We in the IT security industry are collectively guilty for allowing a fundamentally insecure system such as voice over IP (VoIP) to be launched into the market.

We've known for years that only "secure out of the box" should be the default. Yet VoIP is not only insecure by default, it's almost impossible to make natively secure. What's worse, VoIP end devices (the phones) are a full computer -- usually with their own Web browser and (insecure) file transfer protocols to manage the firmware updates. So just as organizations are coming to grips with managing the vulnerabilities on their PCs, we have just doubled the management nightmare.

The return-on-investment claims made for moving to VoIP rarely stand up to proper scrutiny. The phones cost more than a standard "business" phone, and have a reduced replacement cycle. In its November 2006 report, Gartner Inc. said "IP telephony technology, in many cases, can be more expensive than equivalent TDM-based PBX Systems."

The ability to benefit from toll-bypass (routing your voice traffic over your private WAN to take advantage of spare WAN capacity) is frustrated by the fact that peak time for voice traffic is also the peak time for data traffic on the WAN. Most network managers that I know are looking for ways to offload peak traffic from congested, expensive corporate WAN links -- not add huge volumes.

The ability to integrate your computer and your phone is another "benefit" that is on a salesperson's list, with features such as Click to Call, Find Me/Follow Me and Unified Messaging, but in reality companies rarely take any advantage of such computer-telephony integration options.

Then toss in all the extra Band-Aid solutions you need to add, from VoIP firewalls to specialist VoIP security assessments (just run a Google search for "VoIP security solutions"), to make it even partially secure, and the extra management for firmware upgrades, vulnerability assessment and mitigation, and, of course, the WAN upgrades and all of a sudden those incredible savings the salesperson promised magically disappear.

VoIP is, in essence, a time bomb, poised for a massive exploit. With VoIP gaining traction in the corporate world, from boardrooms to the world's financial trading floor, VoIP is a public security exploit waiting to happen -- with the large potential consequences. But unfortunately, this may be what is needed before the industry agrees to take VoIP security seriously.

The historical problems with being able to listen in to conversations that people assumed were secure (or where people assumed security through complexity) are well known: In the 1980s, the world became aware of problems with analog cell phone security when tabloid journalists printed details of an intimate cell phone conversation between Prince Charles (then married to Princess Diana) and Camilla Parker Bowles. We're at the stage now with VoIP that something like that is likely to happen, but with consequences far more serious than embarrassment on the part of the British royal family.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2012 Network World, Inc. All rights reserved.
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