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Financial Districts Airspace Reveals Wi-Fi Security Risks

May 23, 2010 10:00 AM

Key Findings Demonstrate a Pattern of Wireless Data Leakage and Poor Security Practices in Six U.S. Cities and London

Pravin Bhagwat
AirTight Networks

There appears to be a very high incidence of wireless vulnerabilities and poor wireless security practices in the financial districts of seven cities according to the results of a survey released today by AirTight Networks, the industry leader for wireless security and compliance solutions. AirTight issued the findings of its Financial Districts Scanning Report for wireless security vulnerabilities in the financial districts of New York, Chicago, Boston, Wilmington (DE), Philadelphia, San Francisco and London.

The key findings demonstrate a pattern of careless use of Wi-Fi access points and lack of knowledge about the vulnerabilities wireless can introduce into a business environment and how to protect corporate data. This follows the same patterns of wireless vulnerabilities that AirTight found in its Airport Scanning Reports last year, but with potentially much more significant consequences to an already battered industry. That is that the airspace in these financial districts is dominated by open or poorly encrypted (WEP) wireless access points (APs). Many of these APs were using ineffective security practices such as hiding the SSID, and personally identifiable information was leaking out.

Key Findings

57% of the airspace scanned was dominated by open or WEP encrypted access points.

  • Data flowing through these access points can be sniffed, decoded, captured and misused
  • Open and WEP encrypted access points pose a serious risk when connected to an internal network
  • Within AirTight’s 5 minute scans, several instances of open APs were connected directly to internal networks and leaking the identities of active users including company executives
61% of open and WEP encrypted access points were consumer or SOHO grade.
  • These cannot be detected or centrally managed using wired security tools
  • Many were found to be operating in the default factory mode
13% of active Wi-Fi client devices (laptops, iPhones) were operating in ad hoc mode.
  • These were actively looking to connect to viral networks such as “free public Wi-Fi”, “free Internet access”
  • These are also vulnerable to wi-phishing or honeypotting

27% of open APs were hiding their SSIDs in the mistaken belief that this offers protection from sniffing.

Enterprise grade APs were found configured in WEP mode instead of WPA or WPA2 even though these APs can support the stronger encryption.

“In light of some rather spectacular data breaches involving financial information in recent years – both wired and wireless – in financial districts we expected to find well protected and configured networks, open or guest access isolated from corporate networks and strict enforcement of Wi-Fi security policies,” said Pravin Bhagwat, CTO of AirTight. “What we found instead should give pause to security administrators working in industries with highly sensitive information such as financial services.”

In its study of 43 companies that suffered a data breach last year, the Ponemon Institute found the total cost of coping with the consequences rose to $6.6 million per breach, up from $6.3 million in 2007 and $4.7 million in 2006. The cost per compromised record in 2008 rose 2.5% over the year before to $202 per record, according to the study being released last week.

“In this time of heightened scrutiny of banks and other financial services organizations, a major breach would certainly be a blow to their reputation as well as their bottom line,” continued Bhagwat. “Wireless networks provide great efficiencies for corporations and, more and more, employees are demanding the ability to work anywhere at anytime. However, when the data that is being transmitted is so sensitive, all methods available to protect it must be undertaken. It is time for all of these enterprises and government agencies to recognize the risks and implement best practices.”

Wireless Security Checklist

While there are many ways to protect your network from wireless breaches, AirTight has developed a list of best practices to get started. A few are listed here.

  • Enable encryption, to protect the data that is being transmitted. Opt for WPA, preferably WPA2, rather than WEP.
  • Conduct ongoing wireless security audits and scans to detect the presence of unauthorized Wi-Fi devices and activity in your premises.

The full Wireless Security Checklist can be found on AirTight’s Website page for the Financial Districts Scanning Report.
How the study was conducted

For this study, AirTight set out to understand the risks to data from financial services organizations created by poor security practices. Just as with its earlier Airport Studies, AirTight continues to find troubling results regarding the security posture of private Wi-Fi networks as well as the rapid spread of viral Wi-Fi networks.

AirTight wireless security researchers doing “war walks” took five minute scans at randomly selected locations in the financial districts of seven cities - New York, Chicago, Boston, Wilmington (DE), Philadelphia, San Francisco and London - from February  through April, 2009. Overall, the signal from more than 2000 Wi-Fi access points was sampled. The scans were typically collected near the buildings where financial institutions were housed including banks and stock exchanges.

AirTight Networks is the global leader in wireless security and compliance solutions providing customers best-of-breed technology to automatically detect, classify, locate and block all current and emerging wireless threats. AirTight offers both the industry’s leading wireless intrusion prevention system (WIPS) and the world’s first wireless vulnerability management (WVM) security-as-a-service (SaaS). AirTight’s award-winning solutions are used by customers globally in the financial, government, retail, manufacturing, transportation, education, health care, telecom, and technology industries. AirTight owns the seminal patents for wireless intrusion prevention technology with 10 U.S. patents and two international patents granted (UK and Australia), and more than 25 additional patents pending. AirTight Networks is a privately held company based in Mountain View, CA.

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