Magazine Article | July 1, 2002

Wireless Networking Is Cool. But Is It Secure At The POS?

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Recent transaction trouble at the point of sale led Best Buy to pull the virtual plug on its front-end wireless network. Was the move really necessary?

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, July 2002
Matt Pillar

When leading retailers publicly dismantle their front-end wireless networks for fear of transaction security breaches, it's likely to raise a few eyebrows. Consumers grow fearful of the possibility of an invasion of their privacy. C-level retail executives second-guess the wireless initiatives of their IT departments. Wireless networking vendors lament the unexpected hurdles they have to clear in order to see wireless technology become adopted at the POS (point of sale). Reports like the MSNBC news piece that chronicled Best Buy's recent wireless network power down don't do much to help matters. The story, which began with the dark opening, "Think you're safe from the cryptic world of wireless computer hacking? Think again," isn't exactly the kind of editorial you'd like your consumers to read.

As is often the case, the media has opted for drama and effectively blown the security issues of wireless out of proportion, causing alarm about wire-free transaction solutions among retailers and consumers. But, the appeal of wireless retail transactions has gained too much momentum for a renegade article to do too much damage. Yes, credit card data transmitted through the air unencrypted or with a bare-bones WEP (wired equivalent privacy) encryption protocol has been proven hackable. But, retailers who care about maintaining relationships with their customers wouldn't jeopardize those relationships by using such vulnerable solutions anyway. There is technology that will protect wirelessly transmitted data. If your consumers still aren't comfortable with completing sales transactions over a wireless network, there are plenty of other uses for a wireless network in retail, even at the POS.

Protect It Again With A VPN
So, let's say it's a completely wireless POS you want. You want clerks, or wait staff, to be able to conduct entire credit card transactions with a hand held or at a mobile checkout lane, but you don't trust the standard encryption mechanism in the WLAN (wireless local area network) you bought (this is assuming you turned it on). How can you be assured your clerks can safely transmit consumer credit card data from wireless units to your store's server before it gets sent off to the bank? Try a VPN (virtual private network). A VPN sends encrypted data via PPTP (point-to-point tunneling protocol), a combination that will stifle would-be hackers' attempts to crack your wireless network. Vendors such as Avaya (Basking Ridge, NJ); NetMotion Wireless, Inc. (Seattle); Netseal, Inc. (Frisco, TX); and Vernier Networks (Mountain View, CA) offer VPN software that helps retailers protect wireless transaction data.

Queue It Up, Call It In
One advantage of wireless technology in the checkout lane is speed. You can still have the speed advantage without processing the actual transaction wirelessly. The Home Depot, for instance, has long been using wireless scanners to tally up and queue the purchases of customers waiting in long lines. By the time the customer reaches the POS, the scanning has already been done and the customer has been given a ticket to hand to the cashier. The cashier scans the ticket once, which totals the sale, and all that's left is the actual payment transaction, which is processed via hard-wired telephone lines.

Wireless That's Not POS, But Still Customer-Facing
If you're still hesitant to implement anything wireless at the POS, don't rule out the convenience of a wireless network for other customer-facing functions. Arming floor personnel with handheld devices is not only a smart move from an inventory standpoint, it's a brainy move from a customer service perspective, too. Store associates who can verify the availability or price of a product by consulting a handheld without taking a jaunt to the netherworld of the "back room" are well received by consumers. Introducing your customers to wireless technology in a non-threatening way like this can win them over on the convenience, warming them up to the wireless POS that is to come.