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Microsoft boosts Wi-Fi security

Microsoft will extend the security measures now found in its Windows XP operating system to Windows 2000 and the slimmer version of the OS used in handheld devices.

SEATTLE--Microsoft will extend the security measures now found in its Windows XP operating system to Windows 2000 and the slimmer version of the OS used in handheld devices.

Warren Barkley, Microsoft lead program manager for the Windows networking division, told attendees of the 802.11 West conference in Seattle on Monday to expect the enhanced security measures, called 802.1x, by August. This follows earlier announcements about implementing more security by spring 2002. About 150 companies and businesses have already signed up to test the new release, he said.

Security has been one of the biggest concerns facing the growing market for Wi-Fi--inexpensive networks that allow for Net access and file sharing within a 300-foot radius. Anyone with a modem card, which costs as little as $50, can access the network, surf the Web or download e-mail within the area.

Nearly all Wi-Fi equipment uses Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) to protect the information sent over the networks. But beginning two years ago, hackers have been able to crack WEP and hitch a ride onto Wi-Fi networks. As a result, some companies aren't adding Wi-Fi networks, said David Cohen, co-founder of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA).

"WEP is baseline security and never meant to be anything more than that," Cohen said. "It's not just hype. It can be compromised."

Microsoft is perhaps the biggest company yet to make a commitment to the new security standard called 802.1x, a standard set of instructions that is supposed to strengthen WEP. It adds new levels of security that WEP does not have.

Barkley said 802.1x also lets network administrators control just how much access someone has to a corporate or home wireless network--something WEP can't do now.

Other security measures also are available, such as adding a Virtual Private Network (VPN) into a Wi-Fi network. VPNs are private "tunnels" between a PC and a corporate network. Boingo Wireless, which sells access to Wi-Fi networks in hundreds of Starbucks coffee shops, is among the growing number of companies using VPNs.

Additionally, stronger security measures are on the horizon, including 802.11i, which will include a much stronger way of encrypting information passed over a network. But equipment using 802.11i won't be on the market for at least a year.

Despite the concerns about security, the number of Wi-Fi networks continues to grow, becoming one of the few bright spots in the technology sector.

One of the latest signs of Wi-Fi's success is the expectation that there will be at least 20 million laptops with the technology embedded inside by 2006, according to projections presented Monday at the conference by market analysts In-Stat/MDR. About 1.2 million notebooks now have 802.11b technology embedded in them, Cohen said.

"You don't embed technology until it's really recognized as viable," he added.