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Securing your Wireless Network


Posted: Wednesday, March 29, 2006

By: Dave Retz (Expired article)

Solvang, CA -

With the advent of low-cost wireless routers, everyone is jumping on the wireless bandwagon. (I was in CompUSA today, and they’re selling wireless routers for $29.95 – less expensive than one trip to Disneyland!). With a fast DSL or cable connection, the wireless router option is really tempting.

But read further!

A wireless router is a device (smaller than a breadbox) that connects your computer to the Internet via a wireless network (DSL or Cable). What’s wireless? It’s what you use when you pick up your hand-held phone. You take it for granted that you are securely communicating. Usually, you’re pretty secure on a spread-spectrum voice phone of today’s standards. Believe it or not - a computer on a local wireless network is less secure than a hand-held phone: it lets everyone within range get connected, whether it's Sally’s girlfriend or Chat Room to Sally’s leatherfriend. Or, ... Sally's next-door neighbor.

The wireless Internet connection isn’t really secure. Why? Because, it’s designed to let a bunch of users connect to the Internet using the same local router (i.e., DSL or cable connection), allowing Sally in the upper bedroom to chat with her girl-friends; allowing mom to place orders on eBay; allowing dad to do stock market quotations … all in the same house.

But wait; there’s more! Sylvester, the slime-ball next door, is getting online without you knowing it; he's using up your Internet bandwidth downloading music and videos; Juaquin, a slick email-marketer, is parked outside your driveway and using your connection to blast emails to his customers; and endless neighbors are bragging about "free" Internet service because "their router picks up your router ...!".

And, here's a real “gotcha”: the small coffee shop that installs a wireless router to allow people to get online lets visitors send mass emails (SPAM) and block the coffee shop from the Internet in a short period of time; or, someone sends threatening emails to the President, and the coffee shop gets a visit from the Secret Service; a techno-geek sitting in the parking lot outside the coffee shop runs a “sniffer” program, monitoring all traffic on the wireless network and capturing email addresses AND passwords for further activity on the victim's eBay or PayPal sites.

A friend of mine went online in Salt Lake City at the airport using the general wireless network provided locally (a "Hot-Spot"). He checked his mail and browsed the web for a few minutes. Unfortunately, he was “sniffed” by computers on the same network, and was quickly graced by a virus which disabled his system, requiring a complete re-load of the operating system (Windows XP).

Here’s the bottom line: if you use a wireless network, make sure it’s encrypted (protected). That means, you need a wireless encryption password using the WEP protocol to access the network. DO NOT use a public wireless network, without having been given (in advance) a password!

If you install your own wireless router in your house or office, DO enable WEP. Of course, this requires you to enable WEP on each of the workstations or lap-tops. Many coffee-shops or restaurants are getting smart and enabling WEP. They will give you the WEP password to get online. This is also a business opportunity for restaurants and coffee shops: they can charge for the secure code (which might change every so often.) (Note: larger companies, such as Starbucks, have dealt with this problem and offer a monthly subscription service that completely alleviates the problem described here.)

The process of using WEP may seem an inconvenience; it’s a bit less than having to re-install Windows XP.

Dave Retz





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