Wireless Security

Wireless security is an important issue, but like most folks, once I plugged my wireless router in and got it working, I stopped thinking about it. We’ve gone hog wild installing wireless networks in our homes and businesses. But have we thought enough about the security of those wireless networks? I’ll admit it, I haven’t. But I’m lucky to live on a cul-du-sac in an area that’s still relatively rural. If someone were to war-drive my street, looking for an open wireless connection, I’d notice them. If I happened to be home. Or awake.

Of course, If we lived on a busier street, I might not notice.

So last week, when I was in one of those “thinking about wireless security” moods, I decided to do a little research into the subject. I called a fellow geekbook author Dori Smith to chat about protecting my home network.

Dori has penned many fine geekbooks, including the best-selling JavaScript for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide, which she co-authored with her husband, Tom Negrino. I wanted to talk to Dori about one of her most recent books, Mac OS X Unwired (which she also co-authored with Tom), as I run a mixed network of PCs and Macs here at Ranchero Indebto.

Dori’s first wireless network security advice: turn on WEP.

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is the data encryption technology built into the 802.11 standard. It is intended to keep the bad guys out of your wireless network and to prevent them from listening in and grabbing your data. The intent being that your wireless network should have a similar level of security as your wired network.

“Security junkies will put down WEP, but it takes a lot of time to crack it,” said Dori. “Someone would have to site outside your house for quite some time. Is someone really going to spend all that time and effort just to get into your Quicken files?” As Dori explained it, while there is no simple 1-2-3 crack with WEP, it is not 100 percent secure. The steps you take to turn on WEP depends upon your specific computer and router. But they’re steps well taken.

If you want to share your connection with your neighbors across the way, it’s best to check your ISP service agreement to make sure that you are not in violation of the terms.” It’s amazing how many people don’t lock down their networks,” said Dori. “They want to provide free access to everyone. While they lock down their local machine, they leave the network open.” It’s important to note that although some ISPs are okay with this, some view it as a contract violation.

Open connections are commonplace. “I was visiting a friend in Manhattan and she still has dial up,” said Dori. “I walked around her flat and found five different networks, three of which were open to the public. “I just sat down on her couch and suddenly had access.” The big question is how many of those open networks were willingly open and how may were unwittingly open.

WEP isn’t the last word in wireless security. WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is a newer standard than WEP. It was created to improve upon the features in WEP. WPA provides a higher level of data encryption, as well as user authentication. Upgrading to WPA doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have to buy a new router … you may be able to upgrade your router to use WPA, via a software update.