The wireless security dilemma

There are two major strategic efforts within most IT organizations -- largely born of the events surrounding Sept. 11 -- that are, oddly enough, working at cross-purposes.

The first of those efforts is to establish business continuity. This is about a lot more than having a disaster and recovery plan in place. It's about making sure that there is no single point of failure in the IT architecture and that people can get access to the resources they need instantaneously, regardless of what happens in any part of the world. For people working on these plans, wireless networks are crucial tools that enable whatever procedures are put in place to deal with an emergency.

Alas, the other strategic effort in IT views wireless networks as the biggest threat to come down the pike since the introduction of the Internet itself. These folks are responsible for security within IT organizations. To them, wireless networks are the equivalent of flinging open a thousand doors to anyone who wants to capture trade secrets and data potentially damaging to national defense.

Right now, however, it looks as if the inexorable sway that wireless computing applications have over end-users is going to win the day. Let's face it, the majority of time in any given business day is wasted moving from one meeting to another.

People who have access to e-mail over wireless networks maximize their time by staying on top of multiple projects. Many senior-level managers who use wireless devices will tell you they have been able to replace layers of middle managers because they can stay in touch with the business regardless of where they are at any moment.

On top of that, there is a wave of companies about to make getting access to wireless networks for personal use much easier. These companies range from IBM Corp. and Toshiba Corp., to America Online Inc. and ESPN Inc., and all will be offering either paid or vendor-sponsored services.

As these services proliferate, it's only natural that people will demand to connect these devices to their corporate e-mail systems, if only to gain more time at home with their loved ones in the evening rather than checking through a day's worth of memos.

Nevertheless, security in wireless networks is virtually nonexistent, and all it will take to retard the adoption of wireless networks is a few well-publicized break-ins. This is why the industry needs to come together to solve this issue as soon as possible.

Much of the future growth of the industry is tied to wireless networking. In the same way that 1986 proved to be the first year of the 10-year Era of the LAN, so will 2003 prove to be the beginning of the 10-year Era of Wireless.

But that future may never come to be if the industry takes its usual cavalier approach to disruptive technologies. We can't wait for 20 vendors to develop 20 different solutions, with the market leader becoming the de facto standard after five years of bruising wars over market share.

This may be too much to ask, but for a refreshing change, it would be nice to see the leaders of the computer industry put aside their petty squabbles and do something right by everybody on the planet.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld and InfoWorld.com. Contact him at michael_vizard@infoworld.com.

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