Many people are implementing wireless Internet in their homes because of its advantages: it minimizes the need to run cables for connectivity and allows computer users to freely move their computers around the home. Unfortunately, wireless has more vulnerabilities than wired networks. Most of the vulnerabilities derive from the fact that wireless must use a shared medium or channel—air—to transmit information between devices.

Fortunately, by actively configuring a network, wireless security can be improved. Most of these actions involve the configuration of the WAP (Wireless Access Point). Typically, a WAP is a router that communicates via radio waves. In order to begin to configure your WAP, you will have to connect one computer to the WAP through a wire; this wire will usually be an Ethernet cable running from a port on the WAP to the network interface port on the computer. Once the computer is connected, open up a browser and type in the appropriate web address. This address, supplied by the WAP’s manufacturer, will prompt you for the default administrator’s name and password. After you have entered this information, you will have access to the configuration screen. You can see more screens by clicking on tabs or links.

This month, we will look at three steps to make a wireless network safer.

The first step is to change the password used to access the WAP’s configuration screen. The first password is not only distributed to anyone who buys the WAP but also is freely available on the Internet. Because anyone having this password can control the network, a strong password should be used. A strong password is one that is difficult for either a person or computer to guess and includes different characters. Thus, a strong password has some combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.

Second, the next action is to change the default SSID (Service Set Identifier) or network name. The default SSID, like the default password, can be found on the Internet. The SSID identifies your network to wireless devices and devices wishing to join your network must know it. SSIDs are sent in plain text, so changing the SSID will not provide any security per se. On the other hand, when SSIDs are not changed, it gives the appearance of an “easy mark.” That is, it suggests that this network may be unsecured and an easy target.

Third, place the WAP so that the least amount of radio waves escape your home or “leak.” Positioning the WAP near the center of your home will minimize leakage. Be sure to balance the placement of the WAP with good connectivity for your computers. Radio waves will not penetrate very thick walls or large, heavy furniture pieces. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces may also disrupt transmission. Finally, microwaves and baby monitors may interfere with transmission if they use similar frequencies.

These steps are only the beginning. Next month, we will add additional steps to increase security and make the network less attractive to hackers. tpw