GAO: Wireless Internet access threatens computer security

Wireless networks pose a growing computer security risk as the popularity of the technology proliferates in coffee shops, homes and workplaces, and federal agencies are not responding to the mounting threat, government auditors said May 17.

Agencies do not have complete controls for securing wireless networks and nine have not issued any policies on wireless networks, according to a new Government Accountability Office report (GAO-05-383). Thirteen agencies have no requirements for setting up secure wireless networks and a majority fail to monitor the networks enough to stop outsiders from gaining access.

In wireless network tests at six Washington-based agencies, GAO found signal leakage outside the agencies' perimeters, making networks more susceptible to attack from outside hackers. There were also wireless-enabled devicesworking with unsecured configurations and unauthorized, undetected wireless activity at each of the the six agencies.

Wireless networks use radio waves to send data to computers equipped with receiving devices and are anywhere from 150 to 15,000 feet to away from the wireless access points. The networks are common in cafes, malls, hotels, schools, airports and businesses. They are inexpensive and easy to install compared with traditional wired networks, but considerably harder to secure from hackers.

For the report, GAO analysts drove around a 15 square block of downtown Washington and detected more than a thousand wireless networks using an off-the-shelf wireless network scanner.

In addition to guarding against traditional hacking attacks, such as worms and viruses, wireless networks have to protect against attacks exploiting wireless transmissions. If a wireless network is not controlled properly, passwords, sensitive data and other information about an organization can be easily accessed.

Hackers can eavesdrop on transmissions, monitor the amount of traffic between users on the network, pretend to be an authorized user and exploit the access to the network, and intercept messages between users and alter them before resending them. Wireless networks can be shut down by hackers flooding the system with excess radio signals.

GAO recommended that agencies develop comprehensive polices on the implementation of wireless networks, define computer's configuration requirements, establish monitoring programs, and train employees and contractors on the new policies.

The 2002 Federal Information Security Management Act requires the Office of Management and Budget to oversee agencies' security policies based on standards developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs notified GAO auditors that NIST is scheduled to release the new guidance in August and agencies are primarily responsible for complying with FISMA requirements. As apart of its annual review of agencies' information security programs, OMB said it would look at whether agencies are securing new technologies like wireless networks before giving them approval for use.

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