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Wireless Security Puts IRS Data at Risk

Internal Revenue Service offices across the nation that use wireless technology are still vulnerable to hackers, according to the latest assessment of the agency's security policies released Tuesday.

Despite efforts to improve wireless security the past four years, the Inspector General's assessment of 20 buildings in 10 cities discovered four separate locations at which hackers could have easily gained access to IRS computers using wireless technology.

There was no evidence that the computers were connected to the IRS network at the time and no signs that any hacking had occurred, the report said.

"However, anyone with a wireless detection tool could pick up the wireless signal and gain access to the computer," wrote Michael Phillips, the Inspector General.

And if an employee had been connected to the IRS network, "a hacker conceivably could gain access to the IRS network," which contains sensitive financial data of more than 226 million taxpayers, he added.

The vulnerabilities were discovered in Denver and at three other IRS facilities in Texas and Florida.

Wireless networks are created by linking computers using hardware called routers. The devices enable wireless laptop or mobile device users, such as Treos, to send signals back and forth to each other. Data can be encrypted, but the report said that software available on the Internet can decode the encryption.

The inspector general's office said it used inexpensive wireless equipment and software freely available on the Internet to scan the facilities for wireless signals.

According to the report, the IRS also is not effectively monitoring its uses of wireless technology. As of May 2006, the agency had scanned fewer than 6 percent of all IRS offices -- mainly in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metropolitan areas.

The inspector general's office recommended increased of the IRS network for unapproved wireless devices and educating employees about security risks. The report said the agency agreed with the IG's recommendations and will implement them.

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