Risk Reporter for Religious Institutions

Winter 2014 Vol. 13, Issue 1

Offering wireless Internet service for your congregation

Opportunities for ministry continue to grow as the technological landscape changes. Providing free wireless Internet can open many doors for a congregation and its members but not without risk.

“Wireless Internet is like air conditioning or sound reinforcement for a building. Although they’re technically not required, they make almost any building a much more pleasant place to spend time,” said Paul Clifford, owner and chief creative officer of TrinityDigitalMedia.com LLC and author of Podcasting Church and Tweeting Church. “Wireless Internet adds another dimension. It enables people with smartphones and tablets to access resources that could actually aid in your congregation’s mission. It brings people in and encourages them to stick around.”

Opening a wireless Internet network to your congregation or the general public can provide opportunities to serve the community in new and economical ways. Although the benefits are many, the congregation’s leaders, in particular, should be aware of their exposure to the potential risks associated with the Internet access.

“One of the primary areas of concern when establishing a wireless Internet network is how the organization will protect itself and its members,” Clifford said. “Congregations want to safeguard their own sensitive information and be protected against the actions of others using the network.”

Security concerns are valid when providing wireless Internet to the public or congregation. Software could become infected with viruses or malware, or users could access and expose sensitive information.

In addition, a congregation faces liability concerns if a user knowingly or unknowingly uses the Internet connection provided to perform illegal and immoral acts that go against the mission of the organization. These concerns become even greater when youth members are involved.

“The risks associated with providing wireless Internet access are real, but the potential benefits for the congregation are tremendous,” Clifford said. “It’s important to address the risks and put a plan in place to ensure a safe and secure Internet experience for the congregation and the Internet users.”

Minimizing risk

Minimizing risk is necessary when providing wireless Internet access to a congregation. One congregation that has accomplished effective policies to support wireless Internet usage is the Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel in Madison, Wis. The chapel has implemented wireless Internet access as part of a comprehensive outreach program for college students.

The foundation of the successful student ministry at Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel is based on allowing students to use their facilities as a “home away from home,” including free wireless Internet access and quiet spaces for studying.

“Keeping our data safe is paramount to being able to provide free wireless Internet to the local student population,” said Matt Zuhlke, information technology coordinator for the Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel.

Zuhlke recommends that congregations begin by establishing a guest wireless network that is separate from their internal staff network.

“A separate guest network will help prevent unauthorized access to a congregation’s data via the wireless network,” Zuhlke said. “You also have the option to limit access to the guest network by requiring users to have a password to log in.”

Password protection allows congregations to have additional control over who can and can’t use the Internet access. You can restrict access to only congregation members — not visitors — or enforce age restrictions on the access.

“It also is important to take steps to manage the types of content guests can access when using the network,” Zuhlke said.

Ask a networking expert or local IT network professional to configure the wireless router to allow web traffic only. This blocks access to other types of traffic, including file sharing services protecting the congregation from the possibility of users downloading pirated content.

“I also recommend using a web content filtering service to control the types of content guests can access. Router/firewall vendors, such as Juniper Networks and Cisco, will often offer content filtering as an add-on subscription service with their hardware products. Other companies, such as OpenDNS and Dyn, provide content filtering services that work to block access to undesirable content and protect Internet users from malware,” Zuhlke said.

Taking these steps to set up a secure wireless Internet connection can prevent many of the risks associated with providing this free resource. However, in order to reduce the liability of the congregation in the event of improper use, an Acceptable Use Policy must be created.

Creating an Acceptable Use Policy

An Acceptable Use Policy helps minimize the risk a congregation faces when providing free wireless Internet services.

“The policy should clearly define the guidelines that must be followed when using a network connection provided by the congregation,” Zuhlke said. “If you plan to offer wireless Internet, you need to have a policy established, and it should be displayed on the log-in page of the network.”

Consider designating a staff member or qualified member of the congregation to act as a chief information officer who can work to establish the initial policy and then supervise usage of the network to ensure that any risks associated with providing wireless Internet are minimized.

An effective Acceptable Use Policy includes the following elements:

  • Lists the contact information for the designated manager of the network.
  • Outlines the types of usage that are prohibited (i.e., viewing pornography, gambling, illegal acts, downloading pirated content, installation of software, harassment, bullying, etc.).
  • States the parental supervision requirements for minor children.
  • Includes recommendations for staying up to date on anti-virus and anti-spyware software for any personal device using the wireless Internet network.
  • Outlines expectations of online behavior in accordance with the mission of the congregation.
  • Identifies consequences, such as loss of Internet privilege, if the guidelines of acceptable use are disregarded.
  • Informs users that they are using an unsecured and public wireless network, and they should refrain from sharing sensitive or personal information.

When creating an Acceptable Use Policy, keep in mind that other congregations can be a source of helpful advice. Ask an organization of a similar size and mission what they do to keep their congregation safe when providing wireless Internet.

“Remember that technology is constantly changing and so are the challenges associated with offering Internet access,” Zuhlke said. “The person responsible for managing your wireless network needs to stay current on new security threats and usage trends. Any significant changes should be reflected in the congregation’s usage policy and security measures.”

Clifford notes that successfully implemented Internet systems share some basic characteristics.

“Make wireless Internet free and easy to use. Make sure that filtering and log-ins are not more restrictive than necessary and have a coherent usage policy,” Clifford said. “Make sure you have wireless coverage everywhere in your congregation that people will use it and use the Internet as a tool for outreach whenever possible.”



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Editor: Emilie M. Pierschalla  | 800-554-2642 Ext. 4120  | epierschalla@churchmutual.com

Risk Control Advisor: Edward A. Steele, CSP  | 800-554-2642 Ext. 4403  | esteele@churchmutual.com

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