T-Mobile has begun using 802.1x security to authenticate users logging on to its US pubic Wi-Fi hotspots in a bid to make it harder for hackers to obtain legitimate users' names and passwords.
The move replaces the company's traditional web-based login system with an updated version of its own utility, Connection Manager, or software built into Windows XP and Mac OS X.
Not only is the initial login more secure, but users' connections will now be encrypted.
Traditional, web-based gateways control between the open WLAN and the Internet. This method was favoured because it didn't require the user to walk through a complex set-up process at each hotspot in order to ensure a secure connection. Even then, 802.11's Wired Equivalent Protection (WEP) security system is not the most robust of security standards.
T-Mobile's approach allows the company to use the newer, much more secure Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security scheme to encrypt traffic flowing across the WLAN.
Essentially, the 802.1x client code negotiates access through a dedicated encrypted link to T-Mobile's authentication server. If the user enters the correct username and password, the server tells the local access point to issue a WPA key to the client and from then on data is encrypted and access to the Internet granted - all in a highly secure form.
T-Mobile will continue to support the older method, primarily to allows users with pre-WPA Wi-Fi kit to continue to use the service.
Many corporate users will continue to connect using VPNs, of course, and T-Mobile said 802.1x logins will provide a further level of protection. But the company is more concerned with attracting business users who don't have VPN access but are nevertheless concerned about the lack of security at public hotspots - a key barrier to business' adoption of Wi-Fi, many observers believe.
"CIOs across the country have been asking for enhanced security," said Joe Sims, VP and general manager of T-Mobile HotSpot. "The roll-out of 802.1x across our network will enable IT managers and business professionals to use T-Mobile hotspots as a more secure virtual extension of their corporate networks and offices."
T-Mobile will initially add 802.1x to its US network, but the company indicated that it will bring the technology to its European locations in due course. ®