Wireless Insecurity

I was excited about my new toy. I opened the box, removed the plastic wrap and plugged in my new laptop. [Snifffff] Ahh, the smell of freshly molded plastic and silicon can be as beckoning to a tech guy as the smell of home-cooked food.

While I waited for my laptop to boot up, I glanced down at a number I'd scribbled onto a piece of paper. It was a security code that my laptop would need for access to my wireless home network. Entering it into my laptop's wireless settings was a technical speed bump that would slightly delay my Internet surfing, but at least I'd only need to do it once.

After my icons popped onto the screen I was surprised to see a web page appear in Internet Explorer. "Impossible," I whispered, scratching the back of my neck. I hadn't entered in my code yet! How could I be online? Then a small message popped up in the lower right corner of my screen saying: "Connected to Linksys"

I discovered that my obedient laptop was set up to connect to the first available wireless network it found. In my wireless connection settings I clicked a button labeled "Scan" and a list of five wireless networks appeared -each with no security restrictions except mine. I had to grin for a moment because my laptop had suddenly become the ultimate, secret, Internet-mooching tool! Clicking on any of the listed wireless connections would give me access not only to the Internet but to the home networks and possibly files of people living in my condo and nearby houses. Amazing -it was like buying a new telephone and hearing your neighbor's dial tone through the handset before plugging it in! Or like buying a new TV and having the channels of any neighbor viewable before connecting your own cable box.

I flicked the bad angel off my shoulder -resisting the urge to partake of this Internet connection bonanza. I disconnected from the wireless network of my unwary neighbor. Instead of mooching, I entered my security code and joined my private, secure wireless connection.

Wireless home networks are controlled by a sandwich-sized device called a wireless router or access point. These devices are capable of preventing access by unauthorized computers but few people seem to use that capability. Wireless routers typically ship with no security, allowing any computer to connect. For the non-technically-inclined user, the thrill of getting the wireless signal to work right out-of-the-box often causes them to toss the Quick-Start guide aside -skipping the final step of securing the wireless network.

One risk in not adding security (aside from nosey, neighbors with mooching tendencies -or worse) is having your address published on a web site as non-secure. "War driving" is the act of driving through a particular neighborhood with a laptop and noting the homes from which non-secured wireless networks are available. Thousands of such wireless networks are logged by war drivers and posted to web sites. If you have a wireless network with no security does this mean your Internet connection will be mooched or hacked? Not if you're lucky, but having no wireless security certainly increases the risk.

Believe it or not, setting up basic security for a wireless network does not require a huge amount of technical savvy. It only requires discipline (in the excitement of your technical conquest) to follow the last simple step in the instructions. Do it. No one is ever sorry they did.

If you have an "insecure" wireless network I'd encourage you "keep it your own" by adding some form of security. If you've lost your Quick-Start guide, find the name on your router and go to its manufacturer's web site. Look up the model number and download the instructions. No, it isn't too technical and, yes, I know you trust your neighbors for now but are you sure they'll always flick a bad angel off their shoulder?

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