Wednesday, February 2, 2005

A Little Bit About Wi-Fi Wireless Networking

1. What is Wi-Fi?

According to my favorite techno-dictionary, Webopedia, it stands for Wireless-Fidelity. Wi-Fi is equipment and software that use several radio and computer standards allowing, say a laptop computer, to wirelessly connect to a computer network. There is a Wireless Access Point that is a radio transceiver (send and receive) station. This station is normally connected to the wired computer network. The user then has their Wi-Fi capability either built into their laptop or can add a PC Card or USB device on their side of the Wi-Fi network to make the connection. So, bottom line is that once a place like a hotel or courthouse has what is called a "Hotspot", computer users can connect to the Internet without plugging in.

2. How would it benefit courthouses specifically?

Wi-Fi provides computer network services to attorneys and even the public who may be called for jury service and want to access their e-mail or even connect back to their home computers or office computer servers. For example, when I travel to Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, I am able to connect to the Internet using my laptop equipped with a Wi-Fi PC Card, then using my VPN (virtual private network) account I am able to access computer servers back in the office where I have stored documents. An attorney could do the same thing in the courthouse. We do recommend that the Wi-Fi services in the courthouse be installed as a separate computer network from internal court network so as to avoid security and performance problems.

The Bernalillo County Courthouse in Albuquerque, New Mexico has also used Wi-Fi for attorneys in the courthouse for voice telephone service.

3. What are the security issues that courthouses can possibly face by using Wi-Fi?

There are unfortunately several security issues. Recently a new piece of software was released that allows persons with their own Wi-Fi laptop to watch the messages being sent in their vicinity on the Wi-Fi network. Simply using encryption technology can overcome this. However, many Wi-Fi networks do not have even the built-in, low-level security enabled. So, for now, the normal Wi-Fi user has to be careful not to send information like credit card numbers through the wireless connection.

4. What can a courthouse do to protect itself from hackers and other security breeches when using Wi-Fi?

I would suggest first that the Wi-Fi network be a physically separate network from the internal government network. Second, that courts perhaps contract with a public wireless service provider so that they do not have to undertake the support cost. This is a similar approach to what airports have done to provide Wi-Fi services to the public. And third, I would investigate the implementation of strong wireless security on the court's network. The Wi-Fi Alliance has information on the security standards that have and are being developed.