Wireless is becoming an increasingly popular way for businesses to share information and work away form the office. Research has shown that more than a quarter of staff already does some work from home, and this figure seems to be growing faster than ever. Keeping vital information safe is critical for workers on the move, particularly on a wireless network.

Wireless offers businesses a flexible Internet connection, to allow workers access to a company network from locations outside the office. As the cost of wireless devices is decreasing, small businesses are now able to have the capabilities of larger organisations at reduced costs.

The problem, however, is that wireless devices can be hard to secure. Wireless devices work on a radio signal, where exactly the signal can travel can be difficult to contain, leaving them open to intruders and hackers. All devices need to be secured, not just those in the office, as the weakest link is often when staff take laptops home or access the network remotely.

Wireless networks are susceptible to a number of security breaches, including all the problems that affect wired networks. Denial of service (DoS) attacks are just one security issue that wireless users could find themselves faced with. DoS attacks prevent legitimate users from accessing the network and essentially disable your computer network.

Numerous simple steps can be taken to protect information on a network and prevent critical information being lost or stolen. These include encryption, firewalls and anti-virus software to protect against malware threats. These are just a few of the simple ways you can ensure all critical data is safe from hackers and viruses.

Research by small business website businesslink.gov.uk shows half of all SMEs expect at least one security breach each year. With the consequences of a breach so damaging (not only financially, but businesses can also lose their reputation and the confidence of customers), small businesses really do need to implement the necessary barriers to protect themselves and their data.

Anti-Virus software

Malware (or malicious software) such as worms and viruses are designed to infiltrate and damage computer systems, often causing loss of data and vital information, along with causing a computer to run extremely slowly. Malware often comes from a file sharing programme or pop up, which once on the system can be hard to get rid of.

Installing anti-virus software is one security measure to prevent malware. Keeping this, along with operating systems (i.e. Windows) updated can help block any malicious codes.

Encryption

This is a process of encoding information so unauthorised users cannot understand it. The intended recipient of the information decodes the data with a specific code or password. This is one of the most effective ways of securing vital data.

Encryption is a useful and necessary practice, which prevents hackers or those who are able to tap into the wireless network from gaining any sensitive or confidential information. If staff are using USB memory sticks, it is also good idea to encrypt any information that is saved, as these are easily lost or stolen, leading to the loss of critical or sensitive information.

It is good practice to employ the highest level of encryption possible, when using wireless. This entails setting the wireless device to use WEP (wired equivalent privacy) encryption with 64 or 128 bit encoding, as this can help protect against eavesdropping (128 bit encryption is more secure). WEP also prevents unauthorised access to a wireless network by encoding information, using secret user keys which users must enter to gain access to the network.

SSID

It is possible to make the wireless network invisible to unauthorised users by using a service set identifier (SSID). SSID is a unique name that acts as a password when using wireless. Unless a user knows the name, they are unable to see your network or connect to it.

Wireless routers often come with a pre-defined SSID, so it is necessary to change this, and it can be accessed from within Windows-based configuration tools (it is recommended not to use an obvious name such as birthdate, address or other personal information).

Firewalls

Firewalls are a piece of hardware or software that are a necessary security measure in both wired and wireless networks. They work by acting as a filter, through which all traffic passes. Any information that does not meet security criteria is blocked and not allowed to pass onto the system.

Having a firewall in place can prevent all hackers, viruses and worms, as malicious internet traffic is screened out before it reaches your computer. Hardware firewalls provide more protection than software firewalls and are generally more expensive, but they are necessary to protect a network of computers.

Updating default settings

This is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to add extra security to the network. All devices come with a set of default settings, which may need altering in order to get increased security. The administrator password is a good example of this. The default setting sometimes does not require a password to gain access to the system. This should be changed immediately to make the network password protected and therefore blocking unauthorised users.

Implementing a combination of these basic defence methods is necessary and will provide enhanced levels of security for a mobile worker. For example, firewalls alone will not provide sufficient levels of security to protect against malware threats.

It is crucial that wireless networks are kept updated as new threats or vulnerabilities are continually arising, leading to new devices and protection measures that need to be implemented in order to provide protection on the network.

In addition to these steps, all businesses need to think about wireless devices as part of an overall IT security strategy. Small steps, such as not allowing personal laptops on the network or file sharing through non-secure channels such as instant messaging are vital. Whatever size or type of company, it only takes one security breach to wreak havoc on the business.

© Crimson Business Ltd. 2006