Hot spot dangers: That Internet cafe could cost you way more than a cup of coffee

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Batie doesn't discount human folly when it comes to security at hot spots either.

"I think people might mistakenly think their information isn't so important, and the security training they're getting isn't registering very well," he says.

That brings us back to the data that Crum has spied via hot spots. He says users have to take greater ownership of the potential for problems when they use hot spots, but IT has to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.

"It doesn't have to do with the device or provider. The role of the provider is to provide unfettered access to the Internet. And with that unfettered access comes danger," Crum says. "So the consumer should really treat a public access point as dirty."

What IT can do

Companies can counter the dangers of a dirty hot spot with strong authentication, an automatic connection to a VPN and automatic encryption, Crum says. They also need to be vigilant on patch management for all devices used for work, and institute policies and procedures that guarantee IT keeps all workers' devices properly configured.

Another possibility: Air cards, which are "just direct broadband connections," consultant Johnson explains. In other words, an air card is a USB card that makes a connection to your carrier. "So they are an alternative to a hot spot because you can use your air card anyplace your carrier offers service." They are also called mobile broadband cards.

If going this route, your carrier coverage area is a really important factor: It could be either an advantage or disadvantage based on where you normally work and live and the carrier's coverage area. Over time, though, "this is becoming less of an issue as the carriers are converging/merging so there are a smaller set but larger coverage," Johnson says.

Most broadband carriers have fixed-price packages, so this is an added cost over what is generally free Wi-Fi. It may be worth it, though; as Johnson says, "I would say a broadband air card would be more secure than a hot spot because it's under your control and you make direct connections to the carrier instead of [going] through the hot spot infrastructure."

Another tack is that IT groups "can take the proactive stance that whenever these devices are plugged into the network, that every time there's a touch point within the corporate network, that they can check to make sure it's configured properly," Johnson says.

Setting end-user machines and devices to be scanned each time they connect to the corporate network does cause a delay for employees who are hoping to get right to work, Johnson acknowledges, but says it is a delay of only "seconds" and adds that this is part of the education IT must engage in with users. Still, he adds, "it's the price that a company is willing to pay -- or have their employees pay -- to ensure a safer networked environment."

The key to guaranteeing that hot spots won't suck away crucial data and lead to the kind of breach that makes the nightly news is to automate security measures as much as possible, Crum adds.

"It's like the telephone; security should just happen," he says. "So the more things IT can do to make sure it just happens, you're going to be more successful in the end."

Mary K. Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Editor's note: An earlier verison of this story mis-spelled Ryan Crum's name. Computerworld regrets the error.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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