David Cieslak enjoys sitting in the back of conference rooms with shared wireless systems and discovering how many documents he can pull up on his screen from other people’s computers. “It’s kind of fun,” he admits. But he considers himself one of the “good guys” who isn’t looking to use that information for evil. The computer consultant pays $60 a month to use a broadband connection through Verizon to ensure the information he sends about himself—and perhaps more importantly, his clients—is safe from potential hackers like him. During a session at the Illinois Business and Technology Solutions Show about best practices for protecting client data, the Arxis Technology principal referred to the Wifi hotspot offered by the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center as a “den of inequity” that is really a hotbed of opportunity for data thefts. “We’re all friends and professionals, but there could be people [lurking] outside. Nothing about four walls stops people from accessing it,” he said. Wireless systems aren’t the only compromising situations out there. Many firms use instant messaging to communicate. Methods exist to break into the chat tools offered by AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, letting someone listen in on all those conversations, according to Cieslak. “Consider it a public record,” he says. Think about how easy it is to lose a USB port containing all kinds of juicy information. As more companies are moving from desktops to laptops, thousands of notebooks are stolen every year. Anyone can just pick up a machine and walk away with it. Same holds true for handheld devices. So are we all supposed to pull the plugs on our PCs to avoid living in fear that someone is going to find out something about our clients, risking their confidentiality and potentially damaging our reputations? No, we can do something about it. The bad news is there’s not one solution, vendor or magic pill to solve the problem. You need a little bit of a whole bunch of problem-solvers. The good news is that all the neat tools that exist to help us protect this data don’t cost that much. Afraid someone’s listening on your chat talk? Secway offers free message encryption software for personal use at home or in the office called SimpLite that works with MSN Messenger and Yahoo. Think that thumbdrive might pop out of your pocket? ThinkGeek sells a USB wireless security lock for $29.95. It even recognizes when the authorized user steps away from a computer the drive is in and disables the machine until that person returns. Cieslak owns meltdown software to delete information if his machine is stolen. “If you ever want to know how easy it is to break into a machine, ask a 14-year-old. They make it look like child’s play,” Cieslak says. But investing in tools like built-in hardware-level encryption can help put the owner of the machine at ease. “It doesn’t matter how big the hammer is, the information isn’t coming off this drive.” Some vendors even offer Mission Impossible-style biometric devices ranging from $25 to $300, but Cieslak jokes they don’t work as well on cold days. There’s a lot of options available to help keep your confidential client information safer. It doesn’t hurt to weigh the costs against the potential risks. The most dangerous thing to do is nothing.
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