by Steve Brown
The convenience of wireless networking has made it incredibly popular. However, some people don't recognize the potential security risks. If you neglect to add any security to your wireless network, your computers may be visible to people nearby. Fortunately, a few steps can add a significant amount of security to your network, deterring all but the most determined intruders from accessing your network.
Nearly every wireless access point or wireless router will offer at least one type of encryption, and you'll want to make sure that you're using the strongest encryption type your equipment offers. If your networking equipment supports WPA2, that should be your choice as it offers security that is extremely difficult to break for even the most sophisticated intruders. And considering that the average home user's security concerns are simply from nosy neighbors or curious passers-by, you will likely find that WPA2 keeps your home network safe for years to come. If your equipment does not support WPA2, use WPA. If your equipment supports neither of these, use WEP. Understand that WPA does not provide as strong of security as WPA2 and that WEP doesn't provide as strong of security as either WPA or WPA2; if you have serious concerns about your wireless network's security, you'll want to invest in WPA2-capable networking equipment.
When you connect to a wireless network, you enter a value called an SSID. This is simply an identifier that you give your wireless access point or wireless router so that your laptop (or other computers and hand-held devices) knows which access point to communicate with. Many wireless devices have an option to "disable SSID broadcast"; when a wireless access point or router broadcasts its SSID, it makes it easier for your friends and other visitors to quickly connect to your wireless network. Unfortunately, it also gives intruders a starting point for accessing your wireless network. You might think of it as something like the username and password you use to access your personal accounts: If you tell people your username, they're one step closer to breaking into your account.(WPA2, WPA or WEP would then be like your password; this means that, if you don't enable one of these encryption methods, it's as good as having no password on your account!)
Be sure the SSID on your wireless access point or router has been changed to something that would-be intruders are unlikely to guess. If you change your SSID to, for example, your last name, then any intruder with a little personal information about you would have a starting point for accessing your wireless network. A strong SSID is like a strong password: Don't use an easily-guessable word, don't use names of your family members, and definitely don't leave it as the device's default SSID. For a strong SSID, use a combination of letters, numbers and other characters that aren't likely to be guessed. Check with your wireless equipment's user guide to see what all characters you can use in your SSID and how long the SSID can be, then try to incorporate the most variety you can.
Some wireless access points and routers let you enter a passphrase from which the encryption method generates its "encryption key." (That encryption key is used in the process of encrypting all of your wireless network's traffic, but it is never transmitted over your wireless network directly.) This passphrase, like your SSID, should be difficult for would-be intruders to guess. Understand that many wireless network breaches occur simply because the intruder tries SSID/encryption key combinations until they stumble across one that works (referred to as a "brute force" approach). This approach requires very little technical sophistication, although it often takes quite a bit of time; this makes it the hacking method of choice for many unsophisticated hackers. Never fear, however; if you have an SSID that they are unlikely to guess, you don't broadcast that SSID and you use a passphrase that's also unlikely to be guessed, then your wireless networking should be quite secure against that type of intruder.