Wireless security on your home network

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stuart C. Wilson
  • Pacific Air Forces
Most of us probably remember when owning a computer was a luxury rather than a necessity. A decade or so ago only the lucky and the wealthy had a personal computer in their home and a network was something reserved for large corporations.

In today's modern household everyone has to have his own computer. There are one or two systems for the parents and in most cases at least one for the kids to use for homework and games. In that same decade or so home users have gone from having no Internet access, to having dial-up and now to broadband connections that rival or match the speedy connections used at work. 

Our culture has replaced other forms of media with the Internet and the World Wide Web. We now use the Internet to find out the latest news, weather, sports scores, movie times, yellow pages listing and a million other things. While the convenience of having access to massive amounts of information may seem like a dream come true this can also pose a problem in a home where multiple computers are trying to share a single Internet connection. Software and hardware vendors have come up with a number of solutions allowing home users to share one Internet connection among two or more computers. These solutions all have one thing in common - the computers must be networked. 

Connecting multiple computers together has traditionally involved a physical connection among them. Most commonly this connection would be made with a phone wire, coaxial cable or the more common "Category 5" cable. One of the easiest and cleanest ways to network computers throughout your home is to use wireless technology. 

Wireless networks are fairly easy to setup and most come configured right out of the box. The Internet connection comes in from your provider and is connected to a wireless access point or router which broadcasts the signal. You connect wireless antenna network cards to your computers to receive that signal and talk back to the wireless access point and you are in business. 

It is important to remember that with a wireless network, it is difficult to know where the signal that is broadcast may travel . If the signal can get from downstairs in your home office to upstairs in your bedroom then it can also cross over into your neighbor's living room. A hacker searching for insecure wireless connections can get into your systems from a car parked on the street. 

Before you protest the unfairness of someone taking a free ride on your connection to the information highway there are ways to protect your wireless network. And while these tactics aren't fail-safe, they will make it more difficult for curious seekers to break into your personal information.
Change the System ID: Devices come with a default system ID called the Service Set Identifier (SSID). It is easy for a hacker to find out what the default identifier is for each manufacturer of wireless equipment, so you need to change this to something else. Use something unique; don't use personal info like your street address in your ID that's too revealing to strangers - try random numbers/characters instead. 

Turn off SSID: If your access point allows for it, turn off SSID broadcasting altogether. This prevents strangers from passively scanning the area and receiving your network's broadcasts. Check the manual for your hardware and figure out how to disable broadcasting. 

Enable Encryption: WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) encrypt your data so that only the intended recipient is supposed is able to read it. 

Restrict Unnecessary Traffic: Many wired and wireless routers have built-in firewalls. They are not the most technically advanced firewalls, but they help create one more line of defense. Read the manual for your hardware and learn how to configure your router to only allow incoming or outgoing traffic that you have approved. 

Change the Default Administrator Password: This is just good practice for ALL hardware and software. Default passwords are easily obtainable and they are often what hackers try first since many people overlook taking the simple step of changing them. Make sure you change the default password on your wireless router/access point to something that is difficult to guess like your last name. 

Patch and Protect Your PC's: As a last line of defense you should have personal firewall software and anti-virus software installed on your computer. As important as installing the anti-virus software, you must keep it up-to-date. New viruses are discovered daily and anti-virus software vendors generally release updates at least once a week. You also must keep up to date with patches for known security vulnerabilities. You can use Windows Update for Microsoft operating systems to try and help keep you current with patches.