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Worrying Wi-Fi weaknesses

A wireless Internet network is remarkably useful. The router sends out out a signal that can be accessed by just about any computer or handheld device in range.

A wireless Internet network is remarkably useful. The router sends out out a signal that can be accessed by just about any computer or handheld device in range. That means dozens of people can get into the Internet without being in the same room -- or the same building, or the same block -- as the Internet connection itself.

The free-and-easy nature of Wi-Fi can create problems. Your neighbours could use your Internet connection to download huge digital files and you would not know until the bill came from your provider. Or, even worse, your neighbours could access files on your computer.

That is why Wi-Fi security systems have been around since these wireless networks first came on the scene. It is important to ensure that networks are open to only those people with permission to use them.

Most individuals know that and use at least a basic level of security or data encryption. That's why your laptop might be able to see a variety of networks, but can't connect without the proper passwords.

Hotels know about security, and so do private businesses. Why, then, were so many provincial government wireless networks left unsecured?

Auditor general John Doyle reported this week that two-thirds of government wireless networks tested last year had either no password protection or used minimal encryption. That meant that just about anyone with a laptop in downtown Victoria could potentially have obtained sensitive information. Doyle's team scanned 285 Victoria government offices and found that one-third of 1,445 wireless access points used no encryption and were open to the public. Another third used modest encryption that could be hacked within 10 minutes. The remaining one-third used strong encryption.

Was information taken? It's impossible to know. A digital theft leaves no fingerprints and because only a copy would be taken, the original documents would still be right where they belonged.

Once the evidence was in hand, Doyle's team alerted the government's chief information officer that fixes had to be made. Once all of the changes were complete, Doyle announced what had been discovered.

This is bad news, of course, for anyone who became used to free, government-provided Wi-Fi signals in the downtown core. Now they will need to find other ways to access their Facebook accounts.

It is good news, however, for all British Columbians. We need to know that information provided to government will remain in safe hands and that lax attitudes in government offices are not jeopardizing our personal privacy.

One thing is puzzling, though. Most wireless Internet routers are packaged with instructions on security. Why did it take the auditor general to point out the obvious?