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How to secure your wireless network

Got the heebie-jeebies about malware attacks on your mobile device? Discover the latest and greatest software and tips to barricade gate-crashing spyware, viruses, and thieves.

Most people have enjoyed the benefits of wireless technology at one time or another. Cordless phones, mobile phones, and wireless-enabled laptops all operate on the principle that the fewer cords, the better. Convenient as wireless networks are to use, they can also be easy to hack if you don't have the proper security.

Sadly, most wireless hookups are vulnerable straight out of the box, and still may not be safe even when you activate the default security features. However, with some insight into wireless technology and a few useful tips, you can block out most malicious network piggybackers.

Step 1: Know your network

Let's take a quick look at how wireless networks work. In "wired" technology, data is transmitted from your computer to the Web via cables that connect to a physical port. "Wireless" technology, on the other hand, uses radio waves to transfer data. The signals carrying your data are beamed over a wide range. Without security measures in place, anyone with the right tools can reach out and pluck them.

Step 2: Change your SSID and password

The first trick to slamming the door on hackers is to get personal. Every wireless network, from large corporate systems to simple home setups, contains a service set identification number (SSID) that is your network's digital name. To fence off your signal, you'll need to do two things. First, change your SSID number and password from the default setting into something private and strong. A default SSID is cake for hackers familiar with each company's settings and passwords. To change the SSID and your network password, launch the software for your wireless hardware. You should be able to change your SSID within the program's preferences.

Overwriting the default SSID won't do you much good if your network name is announced to anyone within range. To keep your information as private as possible, it's also important to disable the SSID broadcast. It's usually as simple as a mouse click in your program preferences.

Step 3: Set up MAC filtering

Changing your SSID settings without adding MAC filtering is like changing the locks to your house but leaving the key in the door. The MAC, or Media Access Control, filter is what gives you control over who may access your network and who may not. It takes a small time investment to set up MAC filtering, but without it, hackers can waltz in and use your network as they see fit.

To give specific computers permission to use your network, you'll need to add their MAC addresses--the 12-digit address attached to every physical network device (PC, laptop, router). Enabling MAC filtering is a different process with each hardware manufacturer, but in most cases, opening up your wireless software and locating the security settings should put you in the right place. Finding the MAC address for each device might also be a challenge if you don't know where to look. This handy index from Fermilab will help you search within your operating system.

Sign 4: Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt

Encryption is key, pun intended. There are two types of encryption protocols, WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). Both block intruders' entry by scrambling your data, though WPA is generally regarded as more secure due to its dynamic, ever-changing key. Unfortunately, the encryption key you end up with is also device-specific and WPA isn't yet as prevalent as WEP. Even if you don't have access to WPA encryption, the combination of WEP and MAC filtering is usually enough to deter the casual hacker. A word to the wise--WPA is built in to most new routers along with WEP; however, unless your network components support WPA, WEP will remain the default encryption.

Sign 5: Fill the gaps with software

Even with all these security settings, highly determined hackers can machete their way in; all it takes is plenty of patience and the proper tools. This is where software can help. Programs such as Trend Micro PC-cillin, ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite, and McAfee Wireless Home Network Security all actively monitor your wireless network and notify you when attempted intrusions occur, among other encryption and security measures. Also, a new product from AOL called Active Security Monitor diagnoses your wireless-security protections and makes recommendations for improvements.

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