Wired vs. wireless - security vs. speed

Summary:Once again, this opinionated jackass dives in head first, looking at the next generation of networking and whether wireless technology will ever overtake Ethernet.

Last night, myself and my friend Dan were sat in the pub, discussing many-a-topic from skinny-jean wearing teenagers to networking. You can probably guess what got me more interested. Through the drunkenness and arguing, we came to a sound conclusion that wired connectivity won't be overtaken any time soon by wireless technology.

My job here is to write about the next generation of students, the next generation technology and how the two work together. I just went next door to ask my friends, ordinary and average students, what an Ethernet cable was and they had no idea. I went on Facebook and picked four random students - three women and one man - and the results didn't shock me.

Click for larger image
Click for a larger image

I don't blame them, because we're so used to having a convenient way of accessing a network, or what most people call "the Internet".

Because these things are often just there, we take them for granted. We sit in our lecture theatres, Starbucks or pubs, connect to the wireless and get access to the web. Sure, it's convenient, but I would much rather find a mega-long Ethernet cable and use that instead. Do we substitute convenience for security? Do we prefer a clutter free desktop to high network speeds?

Wireless connectivity is convenient; there's no doubt about it. It's made my life and many students' lives easier by being able to work anywhere. With wireless capabilities being ported to mobile devices and phones, it's made things cheaper and more economical for student budgets.

The security issues though, are something we cannot avoid. Wireless, through its technological nature, can be intercepted quite easily. Unlike an Ethernet cable, you can't just attach a device half way down the line and pick up everything that's being transmitted. With wireless, you can actually see the data being sent and received, in real time monitoring. It only takes one look on the "Wifi security" category on the Zero Day blog to see how vulnerable wireless technology is.

Something I've discovered living in a house, on a street surrounded by students and wireless access points, it genuinely worries me how susceptible we all are to electronic attack. All it would take is someone sitting outside the houses in a car, set up with a wireless enabled laptop, and it could take them less than 5 minutes to crack into a wireless access point.

attacking-neighbourhood.png

So let's face it. Wireless isn't secure, whereas a wired solution is. Why do you think enterprise networks such as universities are predominantly wired? Sure, there are wireless hotspots dotted around, depending on the type of network, but these will be secured to high heaven and will need a username and password to log on; WPA2 Enterprise is probably the most secure wireless type you'll get, but it's expensive and difficult to set up.

Ethernet on the other hand, is as far as I can recall, and as much as I've researched, is the most secure. It's an old technology, but the reason it's still used today is because it works so well. You can't intercept the data, you have extremely fast speeds and it's cheap to run, install and maintain.

The speeds - oh God the speeds. With an Ethernet cable, you may well have to wrap the remaining length around your ankle, but at least you're almost guaranteed a stable and reasonably fast connection. Because my house is made up of part brick, part stone, part cardboard and occasionally bits of wood, the wireless signal around here is appalling. In the first week of moving in, the only place in my house that I could get a decent wireless connection was lying on my back with my legs perched against the corner kitchen surface, with my laptop resting precariously on my belly.

I've thrown together this little table, just to try and rationalise these ideas into one, tight-knit bit.

wired-wifi-compare.png

After much consideration over this, I obviously see the upsides to wireless - allowing mobility, flexibility and convenience of working anywhere, but the downsides just don't even it out. I don't particularly want to sit in a public place, check my bank balance and have someone over the other side of the room saving and analysing every bit of network traffic I send and receive.

Although it'll be a tad impractical to have an Ethernet cable trailing along the floor, with people tripping over and spilling coffee on old people, at least I'd feel more secure in what I do. I don't even feel 100% secure in my own house, knowing there are people next door who could be easily cracking open my network and essentially watching everything that I do.

Ethernet will live on for a long time yet. Wireless may well be simple enough for many, but it just causes too many damn problems. With a cable, you plug it in at both ends and it just works without any screwing around. I just wish I had a cable long enough to snake around the house so I can sit in the garden on those (rare) sunny days.

Am I alone on this one? Please, feel free to let me know, and happy Thanksgiving to my majority audience.

Topics: Hardware, Networking, Security, Wi-Fi

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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