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Stop strangers from using your Wi-Fi network

News & ViewsYears ago, a home network was a luxury. But today, with multiple computers sharing one Internet connection, it's a necessity.

The most common--and easiest--method of networking is Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity). However, Wi-Fi security is a big problem. It is only too easy to put your personal data at risk.
After all, Wi-Fi networks put your information into the air. These signals can easily reach other, perhaps less savory people.

Wi-Fi hardware includes security features. But they're rarely turned on by default. That's because security features add to the hurdles that users must jump. Manufacturers want setup to be easy. But in Wi-Fi, "easy" translates to "dangerous."

So, figure on taking extra time to set up your network. Security is worth it. You'll need to follow three steps:

1. Use strong encryption. There are three types of Wi-Fi encryption: WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) and WPA2. The latter also is known as 802.11i.

WEP is old and useless. It can be broken in minutes. WPA is strong; WPA2 is stronger.

Check the manufacturer's Web site to see which encryption method your hardware supports. If it's WEP, it's time for an upgrade. Some manufacturers offer upgrades that can be downloaded.

But that may not be possible. In that case, buy new equipment. That equipment would include the router, signal expanders, network cards and any equipment on devices, such as digital cameras or printers. Don't stick with WEP. Security is not the place to save money.

There is debate over the strength of WPA and WPA2 encryption. WPA was an interim standard, used before 802.11i (WPA2) was approved.

WPA2 offers stronger encryption than WPA. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, a standards-setting organization, WPA is safe. But I would go with the strongest encryption available.

Spend $50 on a WPA2 router if you have to. The dangers facing operators of wireless networks are very real. Why take the chance?

2. Change the password. Each manufacturer has a default password for wireless routers. Unfortunately, every crook in town knows these defaults. And they know that many people don't bother to change them.

So change yours. Use a password of at least 20 characters. Pick letters, numbers and symbols. Letters should be both uppercase and lowercase. Avoid using obvious things, such as your home address or dictionary words.

Finally, write down the password and keep it in a safe location. You probably won't have to use the password often, so it'll be easy to forget.

3. Even more security. Even with WPA2 encryption and a killer password, you can increase security. One way is by turning on the firewall in your router. You should have software firewalls on the computers, too, but the firewall in the router adds an extra layer of protection.

Also, place the wireless router in a central location in your house. This allows the radio signal to reach into as many places as possible in your house. The signal also is less likely to extend past the walls of the house.

Actually, with solid encryption, there's really no need to worry about stray signals. But if you're extra-cautious, test the signal with NetStumbler. Install it on a laptop and walk around your property. It will show where your signal is straying.

And one other thing: You'll probably pick up signals from a neighbor or two. So, be nice and show them this column.

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