Avoiding a rude awakening

Clients sometimes wonder why I’m so concerned with configuring wireless security when setting up a new home router or reconfiguring an existing one.

You might think it’s no big deal if someone else connects to your unsecured network. After all, we’ve all taken advantage of someone’s open wireless in a pinch, at some point.

I know a teenage girl who hooked up an Xbox console herself. I had previously configured the wireless router in her house, and she didn’t give it a second thought when her Xbox connected wirelessly without asking for a passphrase. It wasn’t until months later that the wireless stopped working and we realized that her neighbor had finally secured his home router, which she’d been using the whole time without even knowing it.

There are two primary reasons to make sure your home wireless is password-protected using a solid security protocol. The first is that unauthorized users will suck up your bandwidth. If you’re paying for broadband, you don’t want to be the world’s dumbest ISP, supplying your whole neighborhood with free Internet.

The other example I give is that if some unknown person is connecting to your router and doing something illegal on the Internet, the authorities will trace it to you.

Think that’s a far-fetched scenario? Well, it just recently happened to a man in Buffalo. NY. A neighbor was using the man’s unprotected router to download child pornography, and the result was an FBI raid on the unwitting man’s home. And if the authorities assume you’ve been trafficking in child porn, don’t expect them to treat you courteously.

So, if you’ve installed a wireless router yourself, it’s a good idea to review your security settings. Make sure you are using a solid security protocol (WPA or WPA2). WEP is no longer considered secure – the keys can be cracked by anyone with a little technical know-how.

Your shared key or passphrase should be of a reasonable length (10 or more characters) and contain a mix of letters and numbers. Keep it private. If you have guests who need to connect to your router, offer to type in the shared key for them. It’s easier than changing the key after they leave.

There’s no need to be obsessively paranoid about this, but it’s an important enough issue that you should give it the appropriate level of attention. After all, you don’t want federal agents kicking in your door some morning. The neighbors will talk about it forever.