Running a home network without encrypting your wireless router would be about the same as unlocking your front door and hanging a sign inviting thieves to come inside and steal. As Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) networks become more popular, the need to protect those systems from security threats becomes more imperative. Unfortunately, for many ordinary computer owners, the complexity of dealing with a wireless network causes them to put the security issue on the back burner. This can be a dangerous practice as it is so easy for anyone to gain access to your computer and all of the information on it.
Many wireless users are interested in the convenience and mobility provided by wireless networks. Most companies utilizing this technology will spend the money to have them set up correctly by professionals. However, people with wireless networks in their homes do not have the money to hire security experts, and do not have the expertise themselves to properly encrypt their routers in order to keep them safe from outside intruders.
Going wireless generally requires a broadband connection to the internet called an ‘access point’ which is likely a cable or DSL (digital subscriber line) line that runs into a modem. To set up a wireless network, you have to connect your access point to a wireless router that in turn broadcasts a signal through the air. This signal can sometimes reach as far as several hundred feet away. Any computer within that range, that is equipped with a wireless client card, can pull the signal from the air and gain access to the internet through your router.
This is obviously an unacceptable vulnerability, as you do not want to allow anyone with a wireless-ready computer to use your network. If your router is not properly encrypted then your neighbors, or any hackers lurking nearby, can simply hop onto your network, or even access the information on your own computer. If someone were to use your network to commit some kind of crime, or even just send spam, the activity can be traced back to you, and you would be held responsible.
Encrypting your network is the number one security measure that you must take if you are using wireless technology. Most wireless routers will have a built-in encryption mechanism. If your wireless router does not have any encryption features, consider getting one that does. Many router manufacturers deliver wireless routers with the encryption feature turned off. So even if your router has this feature, you still have to turn it on. The directions that come with your wireless router should explain how to do that. If they do not, check the router manufacturer's website right away as this is not something you can put off.
The two main types of encryption are available are the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). Your computer, router, and other equipment must all use the same form of encryption. WPA is stronger and you should use this one if you have a choice. It will protect you against most hackers. Some older wireless routers only use the WEP encryption. WEP is still better than no encryption at all, as it should protect your wireless network against accidental intrusions by neighbors or attacks by less-sophisticated hackers.
Most wireless routers have a mechanism called identifier broadcasting. It sends out a signal to any device in the vicinity announcing its presence. You should turn off the identifier broadcasting, as you do not need to broadcast this information if the person using the network already knows it is there. Hackers will use identifier broadcasting to locate any vulnerable wireless networks in their vicinity and then proceed to attack them. Even if your router is encrypted, you still should keep this function turned off so you do not draw any unwanted attention to your network.
You should also keep in mind that even with an encrypted network, you would not be 100% safe. The truth is that most forms of encryption can ultimately be cracked. Someone with a high level of knowledge about computers and networking, that is willing to spend a few hours researching the free hacking tools available on the internet, could conceivably crack your encryption in a few hours.
However, most hackers that want to connect to the internet without authorization lack the expertise to crack stronger levels of encryption. In a crowded neighborhood with many unprotected wireless networks, anyone looking for a ‘free ride’ will choose a less protected network, rather than the better protected networks. Just as a car thief would likely steal a car with no alarm, or an alarm that is easy to circumvent, instead of trying to steal a car with the best alarm on the market.
Therefore, any encryption will offer better protection than not having encryption at all. Over time, there will undoubtedly be new cracking tools developed that could increase your vulnerability, but the encryption protocols will also get better. The key to using wireless technology is to be vigilant. Just as you would do your best to protect your PC from a virus, and you continually update your virus software, you need to encrypt your wireless network and continually check for news and updates to keep safe.