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By now many lawyers have probably heard about it from friends, seen it at the coffee shop or watched someone doing it at the airport: surfing the Internet on Wireless Fidelity, better known as WiFi. It’s a wonder to behold. And for lawyers constantly toting laptops through their daily chores, it’s also an elegantly simple way to reduce clutter in their lives. They can spend a few hundred dollars for a small antenna that snaps onto the back of their computers and access the Internet or use e-mail instantly, without any wires. The catch? WiFi only works with wireless access points. Access points are small devices that attach to a conventional Internet connection, such as a cable modem at home or a LAN jack at the office. They convert that fixed, wired point into a wireless network that stretches several dozen yards in any direction; bring a laptop into range of a WiFi network, and suddenly the WiFi antenna on the back of the computer says it’s ready to start surfing. WiFi networks are big news these days. Starbucks and T-Mobile Inc. have teamed up to offer wireless Internet access at Starbucks coffee shops across the nation for a monthly fee. More and more businesses are finding that WiFi can be a useful way to network a small office or department. Plenty of Web enthusiasts are creating WiFi networks free to the public. Unquestionably, the technology is useful and is here to stay. All a user needs to get started is a WiFi antenna. These are available at large electronics stores such as BestBuy or Circuit City and generally cost $40 to $80; the big vendors are LinkSys, D-Link, Microsoft, NetGear and a few others. All WiFi devices use the 2.4 gigahertz standard and generally are easy to install on a computer. Then it’s just a matter of wandering around to let the antenna find a wireless network. PREFLIGHT SURFING Most famed is the Starbucks WiFi network. T-Mobile has wired thousands of Starbucks coffee shops and dozens of airport lounges for WiFi access, on the premise that the ease of wireless Internet surfing will entice users to sit back and have another latte while they check e-mail or do other things. Lawyers can log onto the network and enjoy broadband speeds for hours, while the practice chair thinks they’re still in depositions. There’s little question that the network is pervasive and the connections work well. Cities like New York, Chicago, Washington, Boston, San Francisco and others now each have dozens of Starbucks “hot spots” where the service is available and convenient. The objections to WiFi are more philosophical. First is the price. T-Mobile sells service at $30 per month to access all the hot spots in a specific metropolitan area, or $50 for nationwide access. (It also offers a slimmed down rate of $3 per month plus a per-minute charge for infrequent users.) It’s difficult to justify this extra cost when more and more WiFi networks can be tapped for no charge at all. In the Boston area, for example, several coffee shops allow free Web surfing. Activists in Portland, Ore., are trying to create a free network all over downtown. Second is security. When users “work without wires,” they do so in every sense of the metaphor. WiFi brings a sense of freedom and mobility to daily computer tasks. It also poses dangerous security risks. Hackers have some truly ingenious methods to exploit WiFi weak spots. A system configured incorrectly might seem to work fine, but leave confidential data exposed to electronic passersby. T-Mobile is up-front that it cannot promise security for all data that might cross the wireless network. User ID and passwords for its network are encrypted, so nobody can “pose” as someone else to steal data. But the messages themselves that a lawyer sends — say, e-mailing a settlement deal back to the office — could be observed by any number of parties. And this worry is for the most well-known WiFi network out there; what other free WiFi networks offer for security can be anyone’s guess. Encrypting all that data is incumbent on the user. The various WiFi aircards and laptop antennae do allow for encryption of data, but it takes some effort. For example, LinkSys (which this writer tested for a week) has security settings a user can adjust to give 128-bit encryption. That provides a comforting amount of security but impedes network performance. Other vendors may have different specifics but strive for 128-bit encryption — and then use it. All this should not strike terror into the heart of a lawyer sitting at Starbucks or waiting to catch a flight. For casual Web surfing or chatty e-mail, users are relatively safe simply because hackers aren’t interested in the mundane. For more sensitive matters, however, lawyers should consider the consequences before hitting “send.” Wireless networks are a wonderful convenience, but they can also cause some mighty big headaches for the careless.

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