Wireless Security

Wireless networks are popping up everywhere. Whether at home, the office, the airport, or your local coffee shop, it isn’t hard to find a connection to the internet. Wireless networks use radio waves rather than wires to connect computers that are in range of the wireless signal to the network to access data or the internet.  What makes wireless great is the mobility that it provides. No longer are we tethered to one spot by a cable to get online or access our data. What makes wireless not so great is the potential security risks that arise if the wireless network in our home or office is not properly secured.

Securing wireless connections is as important to the security of your network as anti-virus software and firewalls are. If your wireless network is not secure anyone with a wireless device could connect and potentially gain access to your internet connection or your data. When users connect to your network through the wireless access point they have the same access to the network as someone who has a computer that is directly wired to the network. Because wireless networks use radio waves the wireless signal can’t be confined to the inside of your home or office. Many times the wireless signal will reach beyond those walls effectively giving anyone in range of that signal the ability to connect to your network as if they were inside your home or office using your computer.

Having an unsecured wireless network could allow someone to connect to your network from the parking lot of your office or from the building across the street. That individual then has access to all of your computers, your internet connection, and potentially your private and confidential data. The unwanted user of your network could plant viruses or destroy data. They could also utilize your internet connection to perform illegal activities or simply hog your internet bandwidth making it very slow for you.

Most wireless access points that are installed do not come with any security turned on by default. For this reason it is very important to understand the different methods for securing these access points before implementing wireless access in your home or office. Here are some of the steps that can be taken to secure your wireless network and make it very difficult for anyone to gain access to.

  1. Change the default administrator password. Every access point has a default password that is used to access the management interface. Someone who is looking to access your network can easily look up a list of common passwords and attempt to gain access to the wireless device.
  2. Change the default SSID (Service Set Identifier) that your access point uses. The SSID is the name that the access point broadcasts so that it can be identified by wireless devices and connected to. You want to avoid using SSID names that identify where the access point is located such as the company name or your address. An even better practice is to turn off the SSID broadcasting so that the access point doesn’t announce its presence to devices within range. Most access points have this ability and it makes it much more difficult for potential intruders to find your wireless access point.
  3. Implement data encryption. Most access points offer some level of data encryption whether it is through the use of WEP or WPA. Encrypting the data prevents anyone who might be able to access your network from being able to view your data. WEP encryption is the least secure and can be easily hacked by an experienced individual. WPA is more secure and would be the ideal choice for most networks. Keep in mind that any security is better than no security so if your access point only offers WEP, even though it is less secure, it is better to have some encryption than none at all.
  4. Restricting access to the wireless network can be another way to make it a little more difficult for a wireless intruder to gain access to your network. Many access points allow the administrator to do MAC filtering. MAC filtering prevents wireless devices from connecting unless they are on a list of approved devices. Each wireless device has its own unique identifier built in and these identifiers can be programmed into the access point. Keep in mind that MAC filtering, just like WEP encryption, can be easily hacked by an experienced person.
  5. Ban rogue access points. Rogue access points are those that are installed by someone other than your computer support person and are most likely not secured in any way. Making sure that the only access points on your network are those that you have put there will eliminate any unwanted access to your network. Your network support person will be able to locate and remove the rogue access points even if you are unaware they exist.

Though these five steps to securing your wireless network are a good start, there are still many other options available to lock down the wireless access to your network. Securing your wireless access points is just as important as securing your internet connection with a firewall and your computers with anti-virus software. Keeping data safe from compromise and our networks secure is a very important and daunting task. If you are unsure about the security of your wireless connections, contact your IT support group to evaluate your setup.

Ryan’s articles can also be seen in Berkshire Business News, published monthly by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.