During the recent Virtualization Field Day 4, I was located at a vendor building and jumped on their guest wireless network. There are a few things that I need to get accomplished before the magic happens at a Tech Field Day event, so I’m always on the guest network quickly. It’s only after I take care of a few website related items that I settle down into a routine of catching up on email and other items. That’s when I discovered that this particular location blocked access to IMAP on their guest network. My mail client stalled out when trying to fetch messages and clear my outbox. I could log into Gmail just fine and send and receive while I was on-site. But my workflow depends on my mail client. That made me think about guest WiFi and usability.
Be Our (Limited) Guest
Guest WiFi is a huge deal for visitors to an office. We live in a society where ever-present connectivity is necessary. Email notifications, social media updates, and the capability to look up necessary information instantly have pervaded our lives. For those of us fortunate enough to still have an unlimited cellular data plan, our connectivity craving can be satisfied by good 3G/LTE coverage. But for those devices lacking a cellular modem, or the bandwidth to exercise it, we’re forced to relay of good old 802.11a/b/g/n/ac to get online.
Most companies have moved toward a model of providing guest connectivity for visitors. This is far cry from years ago when snaking an Ethernet cable across the conference room was necessary. I can still remember the “best practice” of disabling the passthrough port on a conference room IP phone to prevent people from piggybacking onto it. Our formerly restrictive connectivity model has improved drastically. But while we can get connected, there are still some things that we limit through software.
Guest network restrictions are nothing new. Many guest networks block malicious traffic or traffic generally deemed “unwanted” in a corporate environment, such as Bittorrent or peer-to-peer file sharing protocols. Other companies take this a step further and start filtering out bandwidth consumers and the site associated with them, such as streaming Internet radio and streaming video, like YouTube and Vimeo. It’s not crucial to work (unless you need your cat videos) and most people just accept it and move on.
The third category happens, for the most part, at large companies or institutions. Protocols are blocked that might provide covert communications channels. IMAP is a good example. The popular thought is that by blocking access to mail clients, guests cannot exfiltrate data through that communications channel. Forcing users onto webmail gives the organization an extra line of defense through web filters and data loss prevention (DLP) devices that constantly look for data leakage. Another protocol that is added in this category is IPSec or SSL VPN connections. In these restrictive environments, any VPN use is generally blocked and discouraged.
Overstaying Your Welcome
Should companies police guest wireless networks for things like mail and VPN clients? That depends on what you think the purpose of a guest wireless network is for. For people like me, guest wireless is critical to the operation of my business. I need access to websites and email and occasionally things like SSH. I can only accomplish my job if I have connectivity. My preference would be to have a guest network as open as possible to my needs.
Companies, on the other hand, generally look at guest wireless connectivity as a convenience provided to guests. It’s more like the phone in the lobby by the reception desk. In most cases, that phone has very restricted dialing options. In some companies, it can only dial internal extensions or a central switchboard. In others, it has some capability to dial local numbers. Almost no one gives that phone the ability to dial long distance or international calls. To the company, giving wireless connectivity to guests serves the purpose of giving them web browsing access. Anything more is unnecessary, right?
It’s a classic standoff. How do we give the users the connectivity they need while protecting the network? Some companies create a totally alien guest network with no access to the inside and route all traffic through it. That’s almost a requirement to avoid unnecessary regulatory issues. Others use a separate WAN connection to avoid having the guest network potentially cause congestion with the company’s primary connection.
The answers to this conundrum aren’t going to come easily. But regardless of this users need to know what works and what doesn’t. Companies need to be protected against guest users doing things they aren’t supposed to. How can we meet in the middle?
A Heaping Helping of Our Hospitality
The answer lies in the hospitality industry. Specifically in those organizations that offer tiered access for their customers. Most hotels will give you the option of a free or reduced rate connection that is rate limited or has blocks in place. You can upgrade to the premium tier and unlock a faster data cap and access to things like VPN connections or even public addresses for things like video conferencing. It’s a two-tier plan that works well for the users.
Guest wireless access is always going be an exercise is balance. You need to give your guests all the access you can without giving them the keys to the kingdom. Companies providing guest access need to adopt a tiered model like that of the hospitality industry to provide the connectivity needed for power users while still offering solutions that work for the majority of visitors. At the very least, companies need to notify users on the splash page / captive portal which services are disabled. This is the best way to let your guests know what’s in store for them.