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Fed Wireless Networks Need Tighter Security, NIST Says

Government standards body issues guidelines designed to reduce security vulnerabilities in WLANs.
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Federal agencies should do more to consider the security of wireless networks before they deploy them because of the particular protections these networks require, according to the federal national standards organization.

A report by National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), released last week, provides guidelines for securing wireless local area networks (WLANs) in federal agencies. These networks are more vulnerable to intrusion due to the ease of access to them and what are often weak security configurations, as people tend to "favor convenience over security" when deploying them, according to NIST.

Pointing out these particular security needs, the report recommends that agencies set standards for configuring the security of these networks, as each component of the network--including the end-user devices that use the network--depend on this configuration.

To do this, NIST recommends an agency or organization first gather information on both the operational and security needs of the network, taking into consideration any laws and policies outside of the organization itself that might govern the network. This could mean meeting requirements of the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Management and Budget, and other agencies that have jurisdiction over agency cybersecurity, according to NIST.

[The feds are taking a new approach to combat growing threats to national security. Learn more: Homeland Security Revamps Cyber Arm.]

They also should consider not only security of the network itself but how the WLAN may affect other networks that exist nearby, according to NIST. Wireless networks are often connected to wired networks, as well as to each other, so agencies may have to consider separations between them based on security needs.

NIST also recommended that agencies continuously monitor WLANs because of their increased security risks--identifying and applying patches and verifying security configuration settings and adjusting them regularly.

"These actions should be performed at least as often for WLAN components as they are for the organization's other systems with similar security needs," according to NIST.

Indeed, continuous monitoring is a theme that has become pervasive in federal security as agencies strive to be more proactive about protecting networks rather than waiting for a problem to occur.

The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), NIST's standard for federal security implementation, recently required agencies to begin reporting security data monthly to an online compliance tool called CyberScope as part of new fiscal year 2011 requirements for continuous monitoring.

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