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“Wi-Fi” Wireless Safety at Home and on the Road
by Ira Wilsker

             Wireless networking, commonly referred to as 802.11, is now almost universal.  The local electronics and discount stores carry a wide variety of wireless networking equipment and accessories.  Almost all new notebook (laptop) computers now come with wireless connectivity installed.  In addition to the wireless networking of our computers, many other devices are now using the same wireless technology to connect to other devices, such as smart phones, digital cameras, MP3 players, HDTVs, satellite radios, media centers, gaming consoles, and other forms of communication and entertainment.  One issue that many users of wireless technology are contently oblivious to is the risk that unauthorized people may pick up our wireless signal, and use it for nefarious purposes, such as breaking into our computers, and stealing our sensitive personal information.  Fortunately, almost all wireless devices employ some form of security to protect the data being transmitted over the air via radio, which is precisely what 802.11 wireless is.

            There have been many horror stories in the media about what can happen when an individual’s wireless network has been breached by a hacker or cracker who steals personal information (identity theft), or plants Trojans on the compromised computer to allow the miscreant to take control of the now vulnerable computer at will.  Earlier this year a major retail corporation, TJX, owner of some major retail clothing chains, had its wireless network breached, and millions of customers had their credit data compromised, with many becoming victims of identity theft because of the data breach.  If a wireless network is properly protected, it would be difficult for outsiders to break into the system.

            The Wi-Fi Alliance (www.wi-fi.org) has posted a lot of information on its websites on how to secure a wireless network, including some easy to follow security tips to protect us while at home or on the road.  This information is available at www.wi-fi.org/secure_your_wi-fi.  One of the tips has to do with our now common home wireless networks; virtually all wireless routers contain some form of a security system, such as encryption, and possibly a hardware firewall.  All too many users implement the default security settings, a dangerous choice, as the hacker websites frequently contain lists of default settings for all of the commercially available wireless routers, allowing anyone to access the system so poorly protected.  Rather than use the default settings, users should make up their own pass phrases, and set their own encryption keys, thus making illicit access to the system much more difficult.  Users should always use the highest level of encryption offered by their devices, and not use easy to guess words or phrases as the encryption key.  Although the technology has been compromised, WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol), available on almost all wireless devices, should be enabled with the longest key possible.  This will protect against casual attacks.  If “Media Access Control” (MAC) filtering is offered, it should be enabled.  That allows authorized devices access, and provides blocking of unauthorized devices from the network.

            Another area of security concern is the tens of thousands of public, and often free, hotspots where anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled computer or other device can access the internet.  By their nature, most public hotspots are open and unencrypted, which while easy to access, also make any computer connected to them vulnerable to attack.  Always remember that if you can send and receive a radio signal, others similarly equipped can receive your signal and read your data being sent and received.  Imagine that someone else is reading your email and capturing all of the data that you are accessing.  Whenever possible, use a hotspot that requires some form of password or unique key to access.  As an example, one hotel I frequent offers free wireless throughout the hotel, but provides a unique and temporary access code upon check-in.  This access code only provides partial protection from intrusion. 

Users of Wi-Fi at public places, such as airports, need to be aware of a scam that has been documented at several locations.  Wi-Fi users are mostly aware that their computer will show a list of available connections when searching for one; smart crooks will name their connection “Free Airport Internet” or “Discount Internet Access” or some similar attractive term.  The “Free” access may be provided by someone trolling for data to steal and computers to compromise; the “Discount” access is sometimes a ruse to steal the credit card number provided to pay for the access.  Most airports post signs advertising the legitimate sources of public access, and other sources should be questioned.  It is a good practice not to automatically connect to any available network, but only connect to networks where you expressly give permission to access the wireless networks.  Another word of wisdom is to never do online banking or other sensitive tasks while connected to a public hotspot; it is just too easy to steal the personal data and account numbers being transmitted over the air.

Most wireless devices allow sharing, and will connect to any available devices.  As a safety precaution you should disable automatic sharing on your devices, if possible.  In a home or business, file and printer sharing is common, but should still be protected.  When using a public network the user should avoid and turn off file and printer sharing as a security precaution, so others cannot access your data.

While antivirus and anti-spyware software is necessary on any computer, it is important on wirelessly connected computers, especially on public networks.  This is one of the circumstances where computers are particularly vulnerable to virus and spyware attack, and updated safeguards are essential.  Along with antivirus and anti-spyware software, a good software firewall should also be installed and operating on the computer.  Connecting to a public network increases the risk of someone else trying to access your computer, and a good firewall would provide significant protection from being hacked while using the wireless connectivity.  Many of the commercial internet security suites from the major software companies offer some additional protection for wireless network connections.  The suite that I use (Trend Micro Internet Security Pro) has a feature that reports to me whenever there is a connection made with another wireless device, and allows me to block it if desired.  Most competitive suites also offer some forms of wireless protection.

It is imperative to remember that unless properly protected, anything you send on a wireless network can be received by unknown others, and anything that you receive can be read as well.  The use of the maximum encryption available (remember that public access is generally unencrypted), and the other security features of your computer can do much to improve your Wi-Fi safety and security.



 Ira Wilsker is the Director of the Management Development Program at Lamar Institute of Technology, in Beaumont, TX. He also host a twice weekly radio talk show on computer topics on KLVI, and writes a weekly technology column for the Examiner newspaper. Ira is also a police officer who specializes on cybercrime, and has lectured internationally in computer crime and security. Ira is a graduate of the Jefferson County (TX) Sheriff's Academy, and has an MBA from the University of Maryland.


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