the-wi-fi-questionAnything specific catch your eye during the recent Winter Olympics? (Hopefully it wasn’t the infection that turned broadcasting icon Bob Costas into the talk of Twitter).

Does Richard Engel’s report about wireless security ring a bell? It sure made noise in IT security circles.

NBC’s Engel reported before the Games began that “almost immediately we were hacked” upon turning on mobile devices and accessing public Wi-Fi in Sochi, Russia. Engel’s report was declared “100% fraudulent” in a blog post by a security researcher who wrote, among other things: “The ‘hack’ happens because of the websites they visit (Olympic-themed websites), not their physical location. The results would’ve been the same in America.”

NBC did not back down from its report. The researcher did not back off his claim. But regardless of who you believe, there’s a larger point to be made: How safe is your wireless network?

Protecting wireless environments poses an enormous challenge to IT administrators. Without proper protection who knows what threats are lurking. A wireless network, after all, isn’t restricted by office walls.

That is, of course, the point. Convenience trumps security, particularly when it comes to Wi-Fi. Today’s mobile users practically demand the freedom to upload, download, transmit and store data at any time, from anywhere. And many employers want to meet the demand. A “connected” worker, at least in theory, is a more productive worker.

Too often, however, wireless workers are easy targets – as are the networks they access.

PCWorld says “it’s relatively easy to capture sensitive communication at the vast majority of public hotspots—locations like cafes, restaurants, airports, hotels, and other public places. You can snag emails, passwords, and unencrypted instant messages, and you can hijack unsecured logins to popular websites.”

Likewise, wireless corporate networks that aren’t properly managed, monitored and secured are extremely vulnerable.

Last year, GFI conducted an extensive research study of mobile users. Findings revealed that, among U.S. respondents:

  • 98% of employees use their personal mobile devices for work.
  • 96% use open, public Wi-Fi connections at least once a week for work.
  • 61% use any free Wi-Fi source they can find.
  • 27% of commuters fear their data will be intercepted when using public Wi-Fi, but use the service nonetheless.

GFI conducted the same study in the UK. Among workers there:

  • 52% of commuters are concerned about information being intercepted when using public Wi-Fi, but continue to use it.
  • 46% use Wi-Fi as their primary means to access the Internet via mobile device.

This is dangerous indeed – for employees and businesses alike.

“In some cases, unauthorized users may be able to access your private information, view the content of transmissions, download unlawful content using your network or infect computers with viruses or spyware,” the Federal Communications Commission website says. “Unauthorized users may also cause harm beyond your computer or network, such as sending spam, spyware or viruses to others, and the activity can be traced back to your network.”

It is estimated that roughly 800 million Wi-Fi devices enter the market each year. So the question bears repeating: How safe is your wireless network?