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Give Hackers Headaches

Something's in the air, and hackers know it. It's the data sloshing around on wireless LANs--the latest security target in the never-ending battle for computer security. "Are they crackable? Yes. Are they easily crackable? No," says David Cohen, chairman of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), a trade group.

That's the view from a cheerleader for the technology. Critics are harsher. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley reported in January that skilled hackers using inexpensive store-bought equipment could hack most wireless LANs. WECA agreed but argued that the level of security built into most wireless LANs should be considered only a first step. Additional security products should always be used, the group says. Since then, however, it has been encouraging its members to improve the security of their products.

In the meantime, how do you protect yourself? Treat your wireless LAN like the rest of your network--add as many layers of security as the sensitivity of your data demands and your pocketbook allows. Use encryption software that creates what's known as a virtual private network (VPN); install firewall software; and buy wireless LANs that automatically change the encryption code used by authorized employees' computers each time they log on.

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