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How to Secure Your Wireless Connection

written by: John Lister•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 4/25/2009

Wireless networks are particularly at risk from hackers because they can physically intercept data in a way that is much trickier than with wired connections. We explain the dangers of connections which are not properly secured and the steps you should take to keep your data safe.

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    What are the risks?

    As well as the obvious security risks of your data being exposed, there are other problems which can be caused by people using your wireless connection without permission. Their internet activity will count towards any download limits you have which means, depending on your service, that you could face penalty charges, a slowed speed or even losing access for some time.

    The people using your connection might also be downloading illegal material such as copyrighted music or movies, or even illegal pornography. You could find yourself having to prove that you were not responsible for such downloads and could risk getting into legal trouble yourself.

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    What protective steps should I take?

    There are three main types of wireless security, known (in increasing level of security) as WEP, WPA and WPA 2. You should use the strongest type of security available with your equipment. Note that the longer the password, the better, and that with WPA, longer passwords have a much more pronounced effect on security.

    If you use a laptop with wireless capability, make sure that it is switched to only broadcast and receive wireless signals when you are using it to surf the internet. If you plug it into a wired network at home, make sure you have not left the wireless connection on by accident.

    Always change the password on your wireless connection after installing new equipment such as a new PC or a new router. The default passwords on such equipment are well known by hackers and are a very easy way for them to break into connections.

    When choosing passwords, make sure to pick a mixture of letters and numbers, and avoid simply using words or phrases. While hackers sometimes try every possible combination of letters and number to hack into a wireless connection, many will start by running tools which try every word from a dictionary file as this is much quicker. Simply using words in a password can leave you more vulnerable to such attacks.

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    What about wireless hotspots?

    When connecting to a wireless hotspot, take care to make sure you are connected to the genuine wireless connection of the venue you are in. Some hackers will set-up wireless connections near venues such as coffee shops in an attempt to trick customers into connecting to their security system. If you are in any doubt, check with staff to make sure you are connected to the correct network. Be particularly wary of any wireless hotspot which doesn't require a password: it may be genuine, but it's worth making sure.

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    Are wireless keyboards safe?

    Many wireless keyboards use an encryption system which is much simpler than that used by the wireless connections for laptops or other devices. In some cases, the encryption key is only one byte – eight digits which can be either a 1 or a 0. That leaves just 256 possible combinations, which is a breeze for a determined hacker to figure out. For these reasons, it's probably safest to avoid using wireless keyboards for typing any confidential details such as financial information or important passwords.






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