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Wireless strategy behind closed doors

Academics, business executives and members of government agencies will join forces to discuss their concerns about wireless security.

About 20 academics, business executives and members of government agencies begin meeting Monday behind closed doors in Washington, D.C., to discuss their concerns about wireless security.

Called "A Roadmap to a Safer Wireless World," the forum will bring together people who typically don't communicate with each other, yet make decisions that impact the fate of wireless technology. One such seldom mingling pair is business executives and academics, said Eugene Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance Security (CERIAS), the organization sponsoring the forum.

"In academia, we are used to looking out 10 or 15 years" and are accustomed to investigating things businesses don't particularly care about, Spafford said. "We are seldom consulted about these issues. We just sit there and say 'We told you so.'"

The forum will take place behind closed doors next Monday through Wednesday.

This will be a private meeting because of the sensitive nature of the topics being discussed, he said. The group will make public a report on issues and suggested answers to them later this year.

Participants include representatives from the Department of Defense, the Department of Justice's computer crime unit and the National Security Agency.

Academics attending include Spafford and David Farber, a former chief scientist at the Federal Communications Commission. Executives from Nokia, Intel and Cisco Systems are also scheduled to attend. The names of all but two of those attending are being kept private.

Some of the issues likely to come up include the growing threat of viruses spread among handheld devices, he said. One such incident took place last year when a virus struck customers of Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo. Wireless messages were sent that, when opened on a cell phone, forced the phone to dial the country's equivalent of 911.

The growing use of GPS (Global Positioning Systems) in handsets and cars is also a topic likely to be discussed, Spafford said. GPS is used to broadcast an exact geographic location.

GPS is now used mainly in cars, making it possible to send travel directions or even localized weather forecasts. A consortium of car manufacturers wants to use the same GPS to send advertisements from local businesses as a car passes it, Spafford said.

"A lot of people would see that as a privacy violation," he said.

Wireless local area networks that use the 802.11b standard are also a likely topic. These wireless networks are in about 30 million homes and businesses, a number likely to double in the next few years. But these systems are notoriously insecure.

"These wireless markets are happening, whether these things are secure or not," he said.

The meeting comes shortly after national electronics retailer Best Buy's move to pull wireless cash registers out of its 492 stores because of security concerns.

A taste of 802.11
Wireless local area networks, or LANs, let anyone with a laptop and a modem get wireless Internet access from up to 300 feet away. Although wireless LANs operate through the 802.11 standard, there is an alphabet soup of versions of 802.11 that have varying levels of security or speed.

For example, the wildly popular Wi-Fi networks operate on 802.11b, but 802.11a and 802.11g have been developed to be more secure or to travel on more channels. The 802.11b version runs on three channels in the unregulated 2.4GHZ spectrum, which is also used by cordless phones, microwave ovens and many Bluetooth products. Because the information is transmitted through the air, a person can "capture" the information as it travels.

The 802.11a strain is an approved standard that broadcasts a more powerful signal, running on 12 channels in the 5GHZ spectrum, and transfers data up to five times faster than 802.11b. There are only a very limited number of 802.11a networks, even though the 802.11a chipsets have been sold for nearly a year. While it is faster, it has not been backward compatible to 802.11b.

Another Wi-Fi standard, known as 802.11g, which is more secure than 802.11b and has the speed of 802.11a, is in the works as well, but it has yet to be approved by the appropriate standards bodies.