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Security problems still plague retailers’ wireless LANs

A large-scale scan by Motorola's AirDefense group has found that wireless LAN vulnerabilities in retailer networks though much improved over last year, are still all too common, despite repeated, widely-publicized wireless security breaches.

The scan of WLANs in big city shopping malls found about 44% of some 3,000 client devices detected, including barcode scanners, notebooks PCs and mobile computers, could be compromised, according to Motorola AirDefense CTO Amit Sinha.

That percentage is a huge drop from last year's survey, which found 85% of the detected client devices were exposed in various ways.

Retailer access points were better protected: 68% of just over 7,900 access points were using some kind of encryption, leaving nearly one-third of them with no data scrambling at all. That percentage is worse than last year, which found that 35% of the detected access points were wide open. And of those that were encrypted, 25% in the new survey were using Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP), a flawed encryption scheme that can be cracked in minutes by a knowledgeable attacker, according to Sinha.

In its most recent study of 43 companies that suffered a data breach in 2008, 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. For 84% of these companies, it was déjà vu all over again: the 2008 breach was at least their second.

Not all of these are due to wireless weaknesses, but many are, including the now-notorious TJX breach. A Canadian government report confirmed attackers accessed data by compromising WEP-encrypted access points at two of the retailers' stores in Miami.

The AirDefense scan was the company's second annual survey of wireless security in the retail market. Sinha and other AirDefense staff used the company's flagship monitoring software and Wi-Fi card, AirDefense Mobile, to scan, but not penetrate, some 4,000 retail locations in North America, Europe, and this year, also in Australia and Korea, during the latter half of 2008.

Twelve percent of the scanned access points were using Wi-Fi Protected Access, an industry specification based on the then-draft IEEE 802.11i security standard, which was intended to strengthen wireless LAN security. The follow-on WPA2 is based on the final IEEE standard (and adds pre-authentication and pairwise master key caching.

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