Private WiFi aims to keep public, private connections secure

A funny thing happened on the way to retirement for Kent Lawson: the widespread deployment of Wi-Fi, both public and private.

Private WiFi CEO Kent Lawson

Lawson

Lawson, CEO and founder of Private Communications Corporation, was happily retired until he read articles about the security pitfalls of Wi-Fi. When he came to the part where he expected to read about solutions, the articles stopped short, leaving a "good luck with that" type of ending.

A veteran software-industry executive before retiring in 1998, he was enough of a technologist to know there had to be a better solution than that and looked around to see if anyone was addressing the needs of the growing Wi-Fi segment. "Actually, I don't think I would have predicted how strong it [Wi-Fi] has been over the last five years since we started the company, but clearly it was going to be a  major phenomenon" that would be part of everyone's lifestyle.

Lawson didn't find anything in the market that met his expectations, so he started the company, which targets three main audiences with its Private WiFi solution: consumers with a general interest in privacy and protecting their credit; small and medium-sized businesses that are too small to have their own IT departments; and professionals, or "in betweens," who have confidential client information but often work outside their offices, such as accountants, lawyers and real estate professionals.

"Public Wi-Fi hotspots are inherently insecure, and they always will be," Lawson said, adding that public Wi-Fi is, for all practical purposes, anything that is not your home Wi-Fi. Hotel Wi-Fi signals are strong enough that hackers can see another guest's online information even when they're two or three rooms away and two floors above, he said. "Whether it's paid or not, it's equally vulnerable," he said. 

The company has servers throughout the world and essentially sets up a VPN for its customers using 128-bit encryption. Private WiFi works by creating an encrypted "tunnel" between the end user's device and the secure server. The data traveling through the tunnel at high speed is invisible to others who might be looking, the company says.

Lawson said the company is in talks with cable and other service providers that might be interested in using Private WiFi technology for their customers. Particularly now as cable companies ask their customers to share their home hotspots with other customers, the threats may get even higher if people are unaware that the hotspot they're sharing is a quasi-public one, according to Lawson.

"We have a lot of conversations with the cable companies," he said. "They're beginning to realize this, and they need to provide some protection so that customers can use those public services without threat of being intercepted."

He notes that earlier this year he used a Wi-Fi "sniffing" tool that allowed him to hack the Wi-Fi provided at the RSA conference, an event attended by security experts. Although a lot of traffic was encrypted, he also found a startling amount of traffic that was unprotected. He also hacked into the Wi-Fi on the plane back and found a lot of unsecured connections, illustrating the seriousness of the problem.

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