StratVantage Consulting, LLC — Mike’s Take on the News 08/29/01

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StratVantage Consulting, LLC — Mike’s Take on the News 08/29/01

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The News – 08/24/01

Wi-Fi Gaining Momentum

I begin this article with my new favorite quote: “Technology itself, you see, has no clue whether we are in a bull or bear market. It just marches ahead. Chips get cheaper, bandwidth gets more abundant, and new, fun things, not previously imaginable, become real.” That’s Andy Kessler, a partner in Velocity Capital Management writing in the Wall Street Journal in April. It’s a nice quote, and it is even better for being true, at least to a large degree. Sure the dots went bust and tech stocks are down, but the genie is out of the bottle, the bell can’t be unrung, we’re one minute into a 24 hour poker game, and whatever other cliché you want. Technology marches on because lots of smart people keep coming up with cool stuff, some of which they actually get to sell to us.

Stuff like Wi-Fi™ (AKA 802.11b High Rate wireless networking). Kessler points out, “A portable phone with 802.11

built in might actually be cheaper than today’s cordless. And cellular companies have also been overpaying for so-called 3G licenses around the world, mainly to keep upstarts without huge sums of capital away from their cozy oligopoly. But 3G’s main improvement over current generation cellular networks is high-speed data access. Who’s gonna pay for that when they can log in over Wi-Fi for free?” (Pretty populist talk for a VC!) He’s referring to the grassroots Wi-Fi networks that have sprung up in San Francisco, Seattle, (close to 100 nodes, see picture), Boston, London and Australia. These networks are run by volunteers who toss an antenna in the attic or hang one out their window, and offer free Internet access at 11Mbps to anyone with a Wi-Fi card in their laptop. It’s the great collective network, and it’s evolving just like the early Internet, when the only things that mattered were rough consensus and working code.

Kessler’s point is that networking like this makes huge telecom companies like Lucent and Sprint and ATT into the buggy whip makers of the new century. You see, the bandwidth that Wi-Fi works over is free and unregulated, unlike the cell phone bandwidth the wireless networks fight over in their multibillion dollar auctions. Sure, there are problems and conflicts and messiness in using unregulated bandwidth, but the devoted enthusiasts of Wi-Fi will keep plugging away until they either produce something everyone wants, or get squashed by an industry-prompted move to take away the spectrum.

Indeed, some of the biggest companies are getting into the act. Microsoft and Starbucks have teamed to offer Wi-Fi connections while you sip your overpriced cuppa. Microsoft and Intel have joined the board of directors at the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), despite their backing of the competing Bluetooth short-range wireless standard. Intel Corp. and Comcast Cable will jointly develop and test a set of home networking products consisting of a new residential broadband gateway, wireless network adapter and Wi-Fi cable modem. Dell and IBM are building Wi-Fi into some of their machines. And Wi-Fi products are being cranked out and networks are being established by all sorts of other vendors, such as Wayport (airports, hotel public areas, and meeting rooms), MobileStar (locations along "travel ribbons" – airports, hotels, restaurants, conference centers and Starbucks locations), Surf and Sip (cafes, hotels, restaurants and other high traffic public establishments), and AirWave (coffee shops, bookstores, restaurants, laundromats, and other shops in the Bay Area).

This all sounds great, and it’s moving a whole lot faster than Bluetooth, its nearest competitor, which is mired in bureaucracy and incompatibilities and possibly doomed by the telecoms’ inability to prevent themselves from tweaking the standard to try to get an edge.

But there’s a real problem with Wi-Fi: It’s horribly insecure. Any half-decent cracker can pluck passwords and MasterCard numbers out of the air with only a little time and effort. This is because the security scheme used in most Wi-Fi applications, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), has been shown to be eminently crackable .

As reported in a previous SNS, according to members of the Zealots mailing list , “several groups of researchers have described a number of ways to bypass [WEP’s] security. After scanning several hundred thousand packets, the attacker can completely recover the secret key and thus decrypt all the ciphertexts.” This technique works even if the standard 128-bit encryption key is increased to 2048 bits. To make matters worse, even script kiddies can use this exploit, thanks to a new program, called AirSnort , that automates the attack process so anyone with a Linux box and a wireless networking card with a Prism2 chipset can exploit WEP’s weakness. This is really bad news, and will put a damper on the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks, at least for business use.

What can be done? Gartner research director for network security John Pescatore said, “Over the long term, we think there’s been enough damage to WEP that it’s toast. . . We’ve been telling our clients, treat the wireless world like you treat the Internet. If you’re going to send data over it, encrypt it, and that means running your own VPN [Virtual Private Network] software on top of a wireless LAN. Firewall yourself off from it. Make sure your access point is on a protected network segment. On a PC with wireless NICs you should be installing personal firewalls on the PCs.

Businesses need to be aware that the latest and greatest networking techniques still need to be examined closely for security flaws. Analysts figure that the problems with Wi-Fi and WEP will be solved by year-end. Until then, make sure any wireless LAN solution also includes a robust security solution in addition to whatever the vendor provides. And, hey, hey, hey . . . let’s be careful out there!


Briefly Noted

  • Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: StratVantage’s P2P4B2B – Peer to Peer for Business Directory was featured in the July 16th issue of Network World File Sharing newsletter, along with some nice mentions of white papers I’ve done. Even more impressive is the fact that a search for “StratVantage” on Google now gets you two pages of hits! Hoohoo!
  • Smile When You Type That, Pardner! Researchers at the University of California, San Diego have found that by combining three facial expression recognition techniques, they can make a computer as accurate as a human expert in determining the emotions felt by human subjects. Normal folks can discern emotions correctly based on facial expression only 73.7 percent of the time, while human experts and the hybrid computer software can get it right 91 percent of the time. It’s not too late to get rid of that Webcam . . .
    HHMI Bulletin
  • I Knew They Could Vote, But They Can Write, Too! The dead are really getting around. As always, plenty of them voted in the last election; that’s to be expected. But Alert SNS Reader Andrew Hargreave sends us proof that folks can write their elected officials from beyond the grave. Of the more than 400 letters in support of a settlement in the Microsoft antitrust case received by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, two were signed by dead Utah citizens, one from a city that doesn’t even exist. Microsoft has been accused before of sending bogus letters of support, but the reply from their publicity flack this time is absolutely priceless: “I think that it’s obvious that our competitors have waged a political campaign against Microsoft for a long time now,” said Jim Desler, a Microsoft legal spokesman. “It’s hardly a surprise that organizations and companies would mobilize and counter those efforts.” I think he got that response from page 342 of the Microsoft hymnal.
  • Beat the Traffic Cameras: As more and more municipalities turn to traffic cameras to help in ticketing red light runners, speeders, and other scofflaws, it was inevitable that someone would develop technology to fight back. Several companies are now selling various transparent license plate covers that prevent cameras from getting a clear image from an angle. Some are specifically designed for overhead cameras, others for roadside cameras. No reports as yet of protectors for roadway-level angles, which you’ll need if lane marker wireless cameras (previously mentioned in SNS and in my talk, The Next Wireless Killer Apps: Will You Have to Have It? ) come to this country.

  • New Wireless SIG: Geneer has created the Midwest Wireless Application Developers Special Interest Group (SIG) a non-commercial group designed to promote discussion of wireless developer tips and tools. The first meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001, and features Guest Presenter Rod Massie of Motient Corp., provider of eLinkSM and BlackBerry™ by Motient wireless email services. Rod’s topic is Developers’ Tips & Secrets for Motient’s Terrestrial Network and Motorola’s DataTAC Technology. The free meeting runs from 6:00 PM to 8:30 PM at the Marriott Suites, 8535 W. Higgins Road, Chicago, Illinois.
    SIG Signup

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