As colleges and universities move to wireless networking, security risks are escalating with the transition; higher education IT administrators are worrying about nonuniversity individuals hopping onto their networks for malicious reasons. It is not easy to balance their mission to keep universities as open, accessible learning environments with as much interactivity as possible with their need to maintain cyber security.

“The greatest challenge we face is the user challenge,” said Fred Cates, director of Indiana University’s Center for Applied Cybersecu-rity Research. “We are dealing with a wide variety of people, many of whom have no technical knowledge. For example, we’d all like to require extremely vigorous passwords, but many individuals have trouble just figuring out how to get their wireless devices to start.”

The myriad new devices that people want to connect—such as cell phones, computers and PDAs—compounds the security challenges.

“It’s not just about security of our networks, but the security of the devices that connect to it as well,” Cates said.

Institutions of higher education are taking steps to protect their networks. Many require all users to register their Media Access Control (MAC) address—a hardware address that uniquely identifies each node of a network—in advance. They also are trying to enforce better standards of security for laptops, advising their communities to run filters or virus software.

“We’re using stronger encryption and requiring that all devices support that encryption,” Cates said. “If you’re using a wireless card or laptop, you may find that you can’t connect it unless it supports the type of encryption that the university wants to see.”

Intrusion detection and monitoring are vital to preventing hackers from breaking into systems. Educating and training users about risks and responsibilities also is vital.

“I don’t think we’ll see a magic bullet in the future to resolve these cybersecurity challenges,” Cates said. “Nevertheless, wireless technology is here to stay.”