Understanding the Risks of Wireless Internet in your Home

Over the past few years, one particular technology has quickly moved into homes at an amazingly rapid pace. Wireless Internet routers—a small box that can easily distribute your home Internet service anywhere in the house—have become a common addition to any Internet savvy family.

It’s easy to understand their appeal. If you have broadband high-speed Internet, it allows you to place computers anywhere in your home, regardless of where the physical connection is. Even better, most laptop computers now come with wireless capabilities built in, allowing you to "roam" your home and yard with ease and still receive your email. Finally, a plethora of new devices—game consoles, music players, and more—can access the Internet wirelessly through these routers and provide even more functions.

It’s all exciting stuff, except when someone determines to make bad use of good technology.

Your wireless router may be exposing you to privacy concerns or other issues of theft that you may not be aware of. Unless you specifically make changes to the settings on the little box with the antennas, you are likely allowing anyone to use your Internet connection.

From my observations, a great many people purchase one of these devices, bring it home, and plug it in. They are thrilled when, only a few minutes later, they are able to watch YouTube videos on their notebook computer in the backyard. But leaving your router in this condition is akin to leaving a virtual door on your home unlocked.

Perhaps you’re feeling generous, and don’t mind sharing your data with someone in need. That’s very nice, but consider some reasons why this philanthropic attitude may get you into trouble.

The least of your concerns (when compared to what’s coming up) is your Internet Service Provider likely doesn’t allow you to share your connection with the neighbors—even innocently. The fine print of most agreements (which many people never even see) state the service is available for use at your particular address only. There is also likely a limit on how much data you can suck through your modem each month. Most people never come close to this maximum, but if you have an unknown leech connecting to your wireless device, you may be in for a surprise when you discover you have overrun your bytes.

But even more concerning is what that leech is using your connection for. With the ability of law enforcement to determine who is downloading an illegal movie or child pornography by tracking down the specific IP address of your connection, you may be unwittingly accused of a crime you don’t even know how to commit. Or your connection may be used to send spam emails or hack into other computers—starting with any you may have that are connected to the same router. Remember, once a hacker is in, anything on your hard drive may be open to viewing.

How can it happen? Very simply. An individual only has to be within your router’s broadcast range. Most wireless devices can reach at least two homes away in a neighborhood of detached houses. If you live in an apartment or condo unit, there may be a dozen other residences that can reach your signal. And there are the notorious "war drivers"—nerds who drive down residential streets looking for an open signal.

So what can you do? First of all, I am no Internet security expert, but at the very least you can encrypt your signal by assigning a password at the router and on each computer and device connecting to the router. There are two common systems used to do this, both identified by the acronyms WEP and WPA. WEP is the oldest standard and the one most people employ, but a reasonably knowledgeable hacker can defeat it with a small amount of persistence—especially if you don’t regularly change your password.

WPA is a newer protocol and far more difficult to crack than WEP. There are two types of WPA. One is an industrial version requiring another computer to hold passwords and keys, while a simpler WPA, usually referred to as "Pre Shared Key" or "PSK" is made for people like you and I who want to lock down a home network. Again, passwords are put into both the router and any computers connecting to it, but WPA has ways of frequently altering how these passwords are applied, making it far more difficult for others to break the encryption.

The downside of WPA is some older (which, in computer terms, means anything more than four or five years ago) wireless devices may not support it. In that case, you may have to settle for WEP, which is still much better than an open connection.

I’d offer detailed step-by-step instructions of how to put these systems in place, but it’s an unfortunate truth that every router has a different menus system. You are best to carefully read the instructions, and use the disc that is usually included with most routers to allow for easier setup. Also, you may find tutorials on the Internet to help you out. This one, from Microsoft, provides some basic details on establishing a WPA-PSK encrypted network.

All this may still sound confusing, but with a little persistence, you should be able to get your network to the point where at least casual eavesdroppers won’t be able to crash your virtual party. Like so many things in life, a few hours of effort may save you much more time and aggravation in the future.

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