Securing Your Wireless Access and/or Network

Picture this: You wake up in the morning and groggily proceed to grab your laptop off of your desk and place it on the kitchen counter to check e-mails as you whip up some bacon and eggs. Then, you get dressed and head out to the local coffee shop with your machine. After ordering a large espresso, you sit down and go through news sites. Once you’ve finished your java, you and your laptop head to the local park, where you surf your most-read blogs while watching groups of people throwing Frisbees and footballs around. After that, you go to your favorite diner for lunch and peruse the stock prices of some of your investments.

This scenario hardly seems unusual today, but five years ago, it probably would have been unheard of, with the possible exception of a few college campuses. It illustrates one of the greatest recent developments in wireless networking, if not the greatest: ubiquity. It’s so common now that certain U.S. mayors have referred to wireless access as a fundamental human right. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but we are in an age where being connected 24×7 is increasingly important for one’s personal and professional life.

The downside of the prevalence of wireless today is security. When compared to its wired counterpart, wireless has never really been terribly secure, and its newfound omnipresence makes it a much bigger and more vulnerable target for black hats. That doesn’t mean you can’t protect yourself, though. Here are a few steps you can take to make your connection more secure. (And remember: Virtual offenders will almost always opt for the easiest marks.)

Password: This one’s easy. Many WLAN routers or access points start out with a default password (which is usually fairly easy to figure out), but some don’t. Either way, as soon as you set one up for yourself, you should change your password to something easy for you to remember, but not necessarily simple for someone else to crack. As with any password, it ideally should be long and involve a mix of letters and numbers.

SSID: The name of your network — the SSID (Service Set IDentifier) — is often communicated clearly and constantly to other wireless users in your proximity. Of course, this is great when you’re trying to link up to other machines, but it’s not so good if you’re just doing some private browsing. If it’s the latter, remember to turn off the SSID broadcast feature. Even so, your access point might still be visible to sniffers, which brings me to my next point.

WEP (or WPA): Encryption is a good idea in any networked setting, and wireless is certainly no exception. Many systems support WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and the newer WPA2, which are easy to use and provide a great diversity of security options. However, some other portable devices, such as PDAs, only support WEP (Wired Equivalency Privacy), which is a much weaker means of encryption. If this is the case, use it anyway, as something is better than nothing. Just be sure to change your keys on a regular basis.

Remote Administration: Most of the time, remote administration is automatically shut down and is only employed when you want to classify certain IP addresses that can access the router. If you aren’t doing this, make sure this feature is turned off.

Usage: Obviously, you should always be careful about the sites you visit, whether it involves checking sensitive personal information such as a checking account or a credit card balance or looking at an untrustworthy Web page that might drop malware on your machine. That goes double for wireless Web surfing. Be sure that you’re extra cautious about where you’re surfing via a wireless connection — you never know who’s watching!

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Brian Summerfield

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