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Do You Wi-Fi?

Why you should think about it before you do.

September 4, 2008
by Sukanya Mitra

Wherever you look, CPAs and financial execs are busily clicking away on their laptops, PDAs and other electronic devices, catching up on work, doing research, checking e-mails and more.

Today's workforce has more flexibility and more multi-tasking capability than ever before. But the convenience of having the Internet at your fingertips 24/7 comes at a price. The 9-to-5 job is a thing of the past as job responsibilities have stretched well beyond time at the office and for some, unfortunately, have taken over their lives. On the flip side, there are a handful of you who actually enjoy the time during your 45-minute or longer public transit commutes. We've seen you contentedly watching DVDs, organizing music on your MP3 players or playing games or brain teasers on your PDAs.

But, for many, who are constantly bogged down with work and instead of coming to a pile of work in the morning, enjoy responding to e-mails, researching new projects and getting their days organized before hitting the office, it's tempting to say "Goodbye paper, hello Wi-Fi."

Wi-Fi is dandy, especially if you're updating your client's forms and data on the run, but do you ever think of the security of your laptop? Is the client information that you're working on secure while using your PDA across Wi-Fi lines? Could anyone hack into it and change numbers on your files?

To help us better understand the risks and opportunities related to Wi-Fi technology, we reached out to top technology pro, James Bourke, CPA/CITP, a partner and director of WithumSmith+Brown and Director of Firm Technology.

In layman's terms, James, what is Wi-Fi and how does it work?

James Bourke: Wikipedia says it best … "Wi-Fi is the common name for a popular wireless technology used in home networks, mobile phones, video games and more. Wi-Fi is supported by nearly every modern personal computer operating system and most advanced game consoles." Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity, a term used for a set of wireless standards for local coverage, also known as 802.11.

Everyday commuters rely on Wi-Fi to access files and update documentation on their laptops, etc. How can accountants make sure their files are secure?

Bourke: Lock down the Wi-Fi connectivity through the use of encryption and by not broadcasting your SSID (wireless network name). Most Wi-Fi devices today will come with these features built into their product.

Is it possible for hackers to get to material on commuters' laptops and PDAs? How would they do so?

Bourke: Absolutely! If you don't encrypt your Wi-Fi device there is a possibility that anyone sniffing for a stray Wi-Fi signal could not only pick up your signal, but also get into and have access to everything you have access to within and through your device.

How difficult or easy is it for hackers to change documentation on commuters' laptops?

Bourke: If a laptop allows for other connections or if that laptop is wirelessly connected to the Internet … without encryption or via an unsecure link, one could easily have access to and change documentation.

Also, as a commuter … never … never … never … attempt to connect to an unsecure Internet connection while in transit. For example, if you are on a train and a hacker opens up his device to see if he gets any takers to access the Internet and you decide to connect via his device, he will have access to virtually everything on your device, not to mention being in a position to be able to capture all of your keystrokes for access to all of the sites you may visit (your bank, credit card company, e-bay account, Pay Pal, etc.)

What security measures would you recommend to CPAs who use laptops and PDAs during their commutes and use LAN?

Bourke: Connect only to known wireless connections or connect via a built-in or remote air card.

Many of today's notebooks and Macs come wireless-enabled. Is it secure for someone to get on the Internet through their community LAN?

Bourke: Absolutely not. Wireless is open and free. Take every precaution to protect your access while on a wireless connection. Never connect unless you have an encrypted connection and only connect via a network that you know.

What type of business would you not recommend users conduct through Wi-Fi and why?

Bourke: I would not recommend connecting to a wireless device to transmit any form of personal information (that includes bank accounts, credit cards, e-Bay, PayPal, etc.)

Do you see a CPA world being totally paperless some day? If so, what advantages/disadvantages? If not, why not?

Bourke: I do! Our profession, through the advent of content and document management applications, as well as paperless engagement management applications, is well on its way to being totally paperless. With federal and state authorities requiring greater use of electronic and other means of non-paper filing, additional pressures will be placed upon our profession to speed up the process of being totally paperless.

A June 2007 Cnet News.com article reported that Indiana University researchers determined a large percentage of Wi-Fi networks are "horribly insecure." Is this still true? If so, why has nothing been done?

Bourke: That is absolutely true! I could sit around and sniff for wireless signals in a business complex or residential community. I can GUARANTEE you that many of those connections will not be secure! I would not say that nothing has been done, but I would say that not enough has been done. Today most Wi-Fi devices come prepackaged with encryption applications to lock them down. However, on many, the default … quick and easy set-up, there is NO encryption. I really believe that the manufacturers of these devices need to default to encryption and we need to do a better job of educating the buying public of the dangers in Wi-Fi computing.

Would you support a government-regulated Wi-Fi system? Pros and cons?

Bourke: I personally would not support government-regulated Wi-Fi. I would however support government mandated notification on devices to ensure encryption. I believe due to the industry's unregulated status, this technology has been able to quickly develop and expand in the many corners of the world. If the government were to get involved in regulation of this industry, I believe that it would slow and possibly impede growth in this fast-changing arena.

So perhaps we shouldn't always rely on Uncle Sam to lend a hand and act as Big Brother. But before you start updating your clients' documents, while enjoying the free Wi-Fi access on that long commute to work, remember to make sure your network is secure and refrain from buying that last-minute gift for your significant other if you're using an unsecure network.

Happy commuting!

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Sukanya Mitra is Managing Editor of the Insider™ e-newsletter group.