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Laboratory bans wireless networks

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has banned the use of wireless computer networks over concerns that security flaws could leave information vulnerable to hackers.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory said it has banned the use of wireless computer networks at its facilities over concerns that security flaws in such systems could leave information vulnerable to hackers.

The lab, which produces research on nuclear weapons and other national defense technologies, disabled the two wireless local area networks that were in use at its see related story: Wireless workplaces asking for trouble Livermore, Calif., campus as a result of the ban, instituted in mid-January, said David Schwoegler, a spokesman for the lab. One of the wireless networks at the lab was used at its waste disposal division.

Security experts have warned that wireless networks pose a serious security threat to businesses using them because information passed along a wireless LAN is often unprotected and easily intercepted.

About 30 percent of all companies with a computer network also have a wireless network, according to Gartner Dataquest. In some cases, companies are unaware they have one because employees set them up on their own in order to take their laptops to nearby meetings and lunchrooms while remaining connected to e-mail, the Web and network files.

The Livermore lab issued the ban in order to review wireless LAN technologies and policies, and not as a result of any particular incident related to the networks, said Schwoegler. He said the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico may enforce a similar ban. The Los Alamos Lab could not be reached for comment.

Schwoegler calls the possibility of eventually allowing wireless networks back into the labs "a big question" because nearly 80 percent of employees there have access to high-security areas of the lab.

The mobile nature of laptops and Internet-enabled personal digital assistants, the latter of which were banned from the lab last year, makes controlling their use within high-security areas very difficult. The lab bans the use of all wireless communications equipment, including cell phones, in high-security areas.

Because wireless LANs are cheap and easy to install, it would be hard for most companies to enforce a ban on them, said Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney.

Most wireless network gear provides adequate security mechanisms, said Dulaney. The problem is that different vendors use proprietary standards that are incompatible and create security holes when used together. That issue should be resolved by the end of the year, when the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, a standards group, delivers a specification for advanced encryption and security protocols for the widely adopted 802.11 standard, said Dulaney.

Dulaney, a mobile computing expert, knows of no major security incidents that have occurred as a result of intrusion into wireless networks. He doesn't blame national laboratories for snuffing out the technology, seeing as they work with highly guarded information. But it doesn't indicate a trend in the business world, he said.