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WiFi Network Security Gains Notice, Upgrades

The 802.11b wireless home-networking protocol may be a great way to share a high-speed cable-modem among computers, but it can also open the virtual door to roving hackers, who can set up on the curbside and feed off a home's broadband connection.

Vulnerability to such intrusions has come to light in several recent news exposés, and as a result, the wireless industry is working to shore up security measures. Some cable operators are also looking at ways to protect their customers.

These days, the problem is a top priority for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, according to organization chairman Dennis Eaton. WECA certifies 802.11b products for interoperability under the WiFi stamp.

The 802.11b technology does provide basic security through its Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol, and WECA has required WEP for all WiFi-certified products. But the catch is that customers must first turn it on.

"With WEP, the only way it is really effective is when you turn it on, you generate your own unique encryption key that is not going to be the same as your neighbor's," Eaton explained. "Otherwise, it is completely useless if everyone is using the same encryption key."

WEP's capabilities are limited, so WECA has been crafting a stronger security scheme called Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). Designed to be backward-compatible with most WiFi devices, it wraps a new, harder-to-break protocol around WEP's RC4 encryption engine.

Cox Communications Inc. is among the MSOs delving into home-networking services and also paying more attention to WiFi security. The company is staging a home-networking market trial in its New England system, where it offers a WiFi networking option that includes installation by an MSO technician.

"We do enable the WEP encryption, and we do use a different key based off of a password, and we don't use the same key for every customer," said director of product development Stu Cassell.

Cox is also looking into putting up more information on its Web site to help educate customers about home-networking security. It's also working with vendors to make improvements in the security for wireless home networks.

"Some systems allow you to disable broadcast modes, so it is much more difficult for people to come by and sniff your network," Cassell said. "I think that is the direction we are encouraging our vendors to go toward, so we will be able to better control those features."

Cox's cable-modem customers have yet to express much concern about security. But Cassell said as home networking moves into the mainstream, the need for education increases.

"I think it is getting down to early majority customers that may not have that technical skill set," Cassell said. "To some extent that may be mitigated, but I still believe that there is some responsibility on our part to get out there and help educate some people."

The danger from wireless burglars is just a new manifestation of an old broadband problem: Security surrounding an always-on connection, according to Kinetic Strategies Inc. president Michael Harris. But MSOs who offer home-networking service do have an added responsibility.

"To the extent that an MSO touches a wireless home network, then they need to be very clear about what the liabilities are, or even better, find a solution to the problem and generate incremental revenue," Harris said.