Wireles Networking is a practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure. See the editorial for more information....


In a traditional wired network, access control is very straightforward: If a person has physical access to a computer or network hub, then they can use (or abuse) the network resources. While software mechanisms are an important component of network security, limiting physical access to the network devices is the ultimate access control mechanism. Simply put, if all terminals and network components are only accessible to trusted individuals, then the network can likely be trusted.

The rules change significantly with wireless networks. While the apparent range of your access point may seem to be just a few hundred meters, a user with a high gain antenna may be able to make use of the network from several blocks away. Should an unauthorized user be detected, is impossible to simply “trace the cable” back to the user's location. Without transmitting a single packet, a nefarious user can even log all network data to disk. This data can later be used to launch a more sophisticated attack against the network. Never assume that radio waves simply “stop” at the edge of your property line.

Of course, even in wired networks, it's never quite possible to completely trust all users of the network. Disgruntled employees, uneducated network users, and simple mistakes on the part of honest users can cause significant harm to network operations. As the network architect, your goal should be to facilitate private communication between legitimate users of the network. While a certain amount of access control and authentication is necessary in any network, you have failed in your job if legitimate users find it difficult to use the network to communicate.

There's an old saying that the only way to completely secure a computer is to unplug it, lock it in a safe, destroy the key, and bury the whole thing in concrete. While such a system might be completely “secure”, it is useless for communication. When you make security decisions for your network, remember that above all else, the network exists so that its users can communicate with each other. Security considerations are important, but should not get in the way of the network's users.

Last Update: 2007-01-18