Protecting Wireless Networks

Wireless networks (known as Wi-Fi or 802.11 networks) are a fairly recent development, and in the last 10 years or so have brought great convenience to the workplace and to the home. They allow computers to talk to each other, or to access the Internet, using a radio link which is similar to the way cordless phones operate.

They have become progressively faster over the years, and nowadays the speed at which they operate is almost indistinguishable from wired connections.

The drawback to this convenience is that anyone within range can intercept the signal and send or receive on the same bandwidth. What this means to you is that you are at risk in at least 3 areas:

-A hacker can connect to your network and access PCs or laptops connected to it as if they were you. This opens up work or family machines on the network and makes their contents accessible to potentially malicious users.

-A hacker can listen to whatever is being transmitted.

This can include private information, bank account numbers, passwords and other access codes. Under these circumstances, identity theft can easily be perpetrated.

-Even when there is no malicious intent, people can piggy-back on your network and access the Internet by using your access gateway free of charge. This is known as free-loading, or war driving..

Most network equipment is not protected against such interception tactics out of the box, and it is up to you to set up the protection you need by configuring your router or network access device in order to make it secure.

There are basically three things that need to be done in order to make your system secure:

-Encrypt your transmissions.

The WPA and WPA2 standards are best. Your equipment user guide will show you how to set up your configuration so that all transmissions are encrypted. If you are using older equipment which does not handle the WPA standards, then at least use the WEP standard.

-Use a good firewall on all desktop and laptop machines connected to your network. A firewall is a gatekeeper and acts as a barrier between your internal network and the public internet, and performs the function of intercepting and nullifying external threats to your system.

-Use good, strong passwords for every device on your network.

When accessing public networks, such as hotspots in coffee shops, internet cafes, libraries and other public-access wi-fi internet connections, beware of the following:

-Don’t leave the computer unattended.

-Look out for people who “shoulder-surf”, i.e. who try to see your passwords and access codes over your shoulder.

-Some Internet cafes provide each user with a clean disk and a newly installed operating system. These are by far the safest facilities. Try to find and use such highly secure public facilities in your area.

-When you are finished, use the options on your browser to delete cookies, delete temporary internet files, and always clear your history after using a public access internet connection.

-Think about changing your passwords and access codes after using a public internet access facility

-Think twice about carrying out any financial transactions from a hotspot. If it’s not absolutely essential, wait until you get home.

Just a note on passwords. Most of us look at passwords as something tiresome, which we setup and use under protest – an irritating task which we only do when we have to. In fact, passwords are like a lifebelt to a sailor, something whose protection may not be needed often, but when it is, it can save your life.

So there’s a very good argument for not making it easy for the bad guys to guess your password. Once they have it, it opens up your world to them. Passwords can be classified as weak or strong and the weak ones make the hackers job very easy.

Weak passwords are:

-No password at all

-The name of your spouse, children, dates of birth, your pet’s name or your favorite sports team.

-The word “password”. Believe it or not, this is the most common password in the world.

-Short. Less than 7 characters

-Not changed frequently. Change your passwords every couple of months, or more frequently if it’s guarding something very important.

Strong passwords are:

-A combination of letters, numbers and symbols (such as @#$ %&+?>!).

-Longer than 7 characters

-Doesn’t contain easily guessed components such as you name, your company name, your spouse or children’s name etc.

-Changed frequently

-Kept secure. Don’t write them down, don’t email them to anyone. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t use the same password for different services, especially banking sites; If a hacker guesses your password, your whole world is laid bare to him.

So, be careful when using wi-fi internet connections. With just a little thought and preparation you can safeguard yourself, your family and your information.