Securing your wireless network
Taking precautionary steps
By Ian J. Alexander, MD
The adoption of technology that connects computing devices by wireless local area networks (WLANs) has absolutely exploded in the past 12 months. This phenomenon has come about for a number of reasons. These include drastic reductions in the cost of wireless networking equipment, acceptance of industry standards that enable interoperability of devices from different manufacturers, the advent of multiple-computer homes with a single high-speed access line and, in businesses, the efficiencies realized with truly mobile computing.
Convenience comes with risk
However, the convenience of WLANs comes with risk. Wireless networks are more susceptible to unauthorized access than the customary wired network. It is not only prudentbut also mandatory under HIPAAthat you understand the risks and take the simple measures necessary to secure your offices information system.
WLANs utilize radio signals to transmit data between computing devices, whether a mainframe server computer, a desktop personal computer (PC) or a computer that slips into your pocket. The risk comes in the ability of individuals outside your organization to intercept these radio signals and connect their computer(s) into your network, possibly putting your data, in particular patient information, at risk. These intruders are aided significantly by your failure to take relatively simple countermeasures.
If you are considering a WLAN in your office, you or your information technology (IT) support staff should review the following:
Given the mobile nature of our work as orthopaedic surgeons, trying to document care on desktop PCswith a keyboard and mousesignificantly detracts from the productivity gains possible with IT. The mobility and ease of use possible with handheld, touch-screen computing devices with wireless connectivity will be a major factor in overcoming the reluctance of orthopaedists to take advantage of information technology in their daily care of patients. Critical in making this transition to increase efficiency will be assurances that the confidentiality of patient information is not being compromised by the use of wireless networks.
Not rocket science
Taking simple protective measures to secure WLANs is not rocket sciencejust common sense. Most instances of unauthorized access to wireless networks are due to the failure of users to take time to enable security mechanisms built into virtually all commercially available products.
Further information on the basic operation of wireless LANs and WLAN security can be found on the Web site of the Wireless LAN Association at www.wlana.org.
Ian J. Alexander, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon and president of Aristar Inc., a company that specializes in developing medical applications for mobile computing devices that utilize wireless connectivity. He can be reached at (330) 668-2267 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Computer Link welcomes suggestions about future topics for the column and questions about the use of computers in orthopaedic practice. Send your suggestions to the Bulletin at AAOS, 6300 N. River Rd., Rosemont, Ill. 60018.