Increasing workforce mobility may be a strategic imperative but companies must be aware that it also poses one of the greatest security risks to company information, says Derek Wiggill, 3Com's regional sales director for Africa.
In particular, small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that can use technology to compete with large corporations will accelerate their adoption of mobility solutions during the next year as technologies such as wireless and Internet Protocol (IP) communications solutions mature and prove their value.
Wiggill says that business people need to communicate and collaborate from anywhere in the workplace, as well as in remote locations. While this makes business more dynamic, it also increases the risks of corporate data going missing when portable devices are mislaid or stolen, and makes the information being transmitted wirelessly more vulnerable to interception by other devices.
"Mobility blurs the network perimeter. It is no longer enough for enterprises simply to control access to their buildings. They must put in place policies that ensure that only those users who are checked, safe and authorised have access to pre-determined facilities on their system. These highly specific policies must be robustly managed.
"SMEs would want to ensure that access to customer information and proprietary data is limited to only those workers who need such information to do their jobs. At the same time, they would want to provide remote workers the freedom to access appropriate information without the threat of data theft. They need to create 'virtual' perimeters and deeper layers of protection around the core of their business."
The development of communications products that support worker mobility while managing network usage and security are a major focus in the industry. The emphasis is on products that make mobile communications relatively straightforward to administer because SMEs are unlikely to employ full-time high-level communications specialists.
"Mobility presents a major challenge as traditional firewalls and wired IP systems monitor only wired traffic and have no visibility into the wireless traffic that flows through the air," says Wiggill. "Some firms have invested in Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) instead of a fixed wire network around the office. Insecure deployment of Wi-Fi across access points (APs) – some of them rogue – opens up corporate networks to potential hackers."
Wiggill stresses that these challenges do not mean that wireless communications are too risky for SMEs to contemplate.
"There are major benefits from going the wireless route. There are productivity gains, lower cost structures and the convenience that wireless technology brings to the workplace. In addition to office settings, WLANs are also being deployed in warehouses, production bays, laboratories – in fact, any workplace."
WLANs are the quickest, most flexible, and most economical way of or expanding networks. Wireless links eliminate cabling and permit users to access the network anywhere in a site. Another reason why WLANs are popular with SMEs is that many do not own their own premises and want to avoid having to write off fixed network infrastructure when they move. Also, most do not have full-time IT staff to manage complex networks.
"Properly planned, implemented and managed wireless networks are as secure as their wired counterparts," says Wiggill. "While it is true that, because they use radio frequency transmission, WLANs are somewhat inherently vulnerable, they can be made as secure as wired networks."
A wireless intrusion prevention system, such as a wireless IPS solves security problems by delivering similar protection to a wired firewall, but focused on the business's airwaves. Encryption on both user and wireless network devices are also advised.
When it comes to securing access points Wiggill says that configuring access points to use only specified and authorised addresses and disabling the access points' SSID signal makes irt more difficult for hackers to access the network.