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Medical school heals wireless LAN vulnerability

After two years with a wireless LAN in place, the Morehouse School of Medicine has graduated to a wireless network that provides increased security and management functions to meet its needs as well as the requirements of HIPPA.

The Morehouse School of Medicine began installing its wireless network two years ago, but the school quickly found that it needed increased security and management capability to serve up the kind of connectivity it wanted.

The medical school shares the campus with Morehouse's undergraduate campus in Atlanta. The school has already installed access points in many of the outdoor gathering areas for students, classrooms and other buildings. It also plans to expand wireless coverage across campus and to the nearby Grady Memorial Hospital.

About 200 medical students and undergraduates use the system. Most use laptops, although the school's IT department plans to begin promoting the use of PDAs next year, said Marie Johnson, the medical school's director of network operations.

Initially security on the system was minimal. The wireless local area network does not tie into any back-end systems, it is simply a means of connecting to the Internet, so the threat from unauthorized users is not high. The school used a system from Lucent Technologies that authenticates users by their media access control (MAC) addresses. Students had to register their network interface card (NIC) with the IT department, and keeping records updated became time consuming, Johnson said.

At a conference, Johnson heard about a product from the Burlington, Mass., wireless security company Bluesocket Inc. The company is one of a few independent providers of wireless LAN security and management tools that have sprung up over the last few years. Bluesocket's wireless gateway provides users with a high level of security using Internet protocol security, (IPSec), advanced encryption standard (AES) and other high-level security approaches. It also provides wireless LAN management tools, allowing networking personnel to authenticate users and ensure seamless roaming between access points.

Johnson said that the product provided the right mix of functionality and ease of use for her network. Though some students now complain about having to log in to use the wireless network, it has made managing the network much easier.

The HIPAA challenge

With the increased privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which created the need for increased levels of security on hospital networks, Johnson said the only way she could hope to deploy a wireless LAN in the medial facility was to have the level of encryption provided by a company like Bluesocket.

Bluesocket's gateway provides a solid solution for a number of the shortcomings of wireless LANs today, said Aaron Vance, an analyst with the Phoenix research firm Synergy Research Group. Wireless encryption protocol (WEP) -- which comes standard with most access points -- can be cracked using tools readily obtained on the Web. With Bluesocket's product, users can configure multiple access points from a single location and apply policies as well, Vance said. "It's a nice product," he said. "It really helps reduce the total cost of ownership."

Bluesocket's technology has been popular with universities in part because it works with any device, said Mike Brockney, Bluesocket's senior sales engineer. Users need only purchase the gateway; there are no clients to distribute or manage. In a university environment, it is a challenge to control the kind of devices that users are likely to access the network with, and adding clients to the myriad student devices can be an administrative headache. The company has also had success with government agencies, thanks in part to its high level of security encryption, Brockney said.

But companies like Bluesocket and its major competitor, Ft. Lee, N.J.-based Reefedge Inc., are likely to face an increasingly tight market in the future said Vance. Vendors such as Symbol Technologies Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. are stepping up their security on their wireless LAN products. And new standards such as the 802.1x wireless LAN standard plug many of the security holes that created the opening for companies like Bluesocket.

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