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Your Wireless Router Isn't as Secure as You Think

WiFi Network

Many people take their home WiFi security for granted. They assume that default settings right out of the box are good enough to protect them, but this is not always the case. There are a number of breach points in most home wireless networks, and it is important to understand them so that you can keep your network secure.

Why Be So Concerned?

The most common reason to be concerned about home WiFi security is a neighbor stealing your Internet service. It’s a valid concern as it decreases your network’s performance with the burden of extra, unwanted traffic, but this unwanted traffic also eats up data that may cost you extra if you go above your service plan’s limits. Another major concern with these unwanted users is that they may be using your Internet service for illegal activities. This may come in the form of stolen intellectual property such as bootlegged movies or something more serious such as child pornography. Once authorities get involved, they will be able to trace that traffic back to your home.

Furthermore, wireless security is about a lot more than your neighbors stealing your Internet service. A vulnerable network may also expose sensitive information, such as your credit card number, to the outside world. If a hacker were to tap into your network, he would be able to see all the data that is transmitted across your network. This data not only includes what websites you’ve visited, but also what data you submit.

Parts of Your Home Network

To understand how home WiFi security works, you first must understand the elements of your home network.

Your modem is the first point of entry for your Internet service. Typically, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) provides you with a modem (or rents one to you). This device has a relatively low security risk. Most modems have only an input such as a coaxial — if your Internet service is cable — and an output, which is almost universally an Ethernet port.

The modem is connected to your router, which is what all your Internet capable devices connect to. If your router is WiFi (a.k.a. wireless) enabled, this is where the largest security risk exists. Anyone within range of the WiFi connection may have access to your router. Depending on your router’s signal strength and the weather (warm summer days allow the signal to travel further) this range could be hundreds of feet. In a suburban environment, this could mean your neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor is able to pick up your signal. While you may trust your neighbor not to steal your Internet or try to steal your data, a van parked on the road with a laptop inside may have completely different ideas.

Finally, you have your devices that connect to the router. These connections may be wired through a physical Ethernet cable or wirelessly through WiFi. Common devices include computers, laptops, smart phones and printers. However, keep in mind that any wireless device, whether you own it or not, within your router’s signal range might be able to connect to your network.

Example Home WiFi Network

You can see from the above diagram that when you set up a WiFi network, you really need to consider all the devices that may be in range. This includes the stranger on the sidewalk outside with a smart phone, the laptop in the van that just drove by, and whoever is sitting in the houses around you.

You should also be on the lookout for your own devices being infected. If your home computer has a virus, it is probably a good idea to segregate it from the network until you can get it fixed. There are some viruses that can infect an entire network by entering through a single device such as your laptop.

Options to Secure Your Home Wireless Network

As mentioned before, the major breakpoint in home WiFi security is the router. This is where your security efforts should be focused so you should become very familiar with your router (each brand and model is a bit different). Know how to access the administrative settings on the router and how they work.

First and foremost, make sure you have a unique password to the administrative section of your router. The default username and password combo of “admin” and “admin” isn’t going to keep your router secure. For more information about good passwords, check out my article How to Create a Secure Password You’ll Actually Remember.

Second, make sure you are using the most up-to-date encryption method. If you’re using wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption, you are extremely vulnerable. I say extremely, because not only is WEP outdated, it was a bad encryption method to begin with. There are numerous software packages that are easy to download and use to crack WEP. The safest wireless encryption method commonly available today is the second generation of WiFi Protected Access (WPA2).

One nice trick that I like to use to keep a wireless network secure has to do with the router’s service set identifier (SSID). SSID is basically the name of the network. If you live in a populated area such as a suburban or urban area, you probably have noticed a lot of your neighbors’ networks showing up on the available network list. Typically, they can see your network as well; that is the standard. However, you don’t have to broadcast your SSID. If you turn broadcasting off, no one will know your network even exists (except you, of course). This does make connecting devices a little difficult, as you have to manually enter your network’s name. However, if people don’t even see your network, it will be a lot harder to break in.

ssid

Here is a list of networks my phone currently can access from my office. The network with the SSID of “Cureo-Guest” is what I am currently connected to. These four networks are currently broadcasting their SSID. As a hacker, this is probably the list I would pick from. There could be many more networks in the area that are simply not broadcasting their SSID. That makes those networks more secure (at the cost of being more difficult for authorized users to connect to).

Some people avoid this problem altogether by having a wired only network and switching off the WiFi capability. However, that will lock out any wireless enabled devices, such as your phone or a printer, from accessing the network and the Internet. You will also need to run a physical cable from your router to each computer that you want to connect to the Internet.

Secured WiFi Network, Safe Family

In this modern world, you and your family use the Internet for all kinds of activities from shopping to banking, and socializing and communicating with friends and family. A WiFi network is a great way to connect your computers and phones to the Internet. It provides a high level of easy use and portability around your home. However, like with many other things in life, there is a level of responsibility each of us needs to take to maintain a safe and secure wireless network. Don’t let yourself become exposed just because you assumed your router was secure right out of the box. Take some time to become familiar with the router’s security settings and be aware of how others may connect to your network. A secure WiFi network can go a long way in protecting your family in this digital age.