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The WiFi Problem
A wireless router or access point operates much like a miniature version of the radio stations you listen to in your car. The signal is sent in all directions, which means that any device listening and in range can pick it up. Although the range is obviously much shorter than a radio station, a good router facing minimal interference can have its signal stretch the length of a football field. Indeed, some wireless N routers claim to be effective at ranges greater than a quarter mile.
If a WiFi network is unsecure, anyone receiving the signal can access it freely. They can also, with proper tools and experience, intercept much of the traffic going to and fro. That’s a huge security risk, but there are steps you can take to improve the security of WiFi connections.
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Encryption – The Most Common Solution
Although making a WiFi connection directional could be a security improvement, it would also defeat the purpose. Wireless is great because you can be ANYWHERE within the router’s substantial range and connect to the Internet. If you limit that, you’re limiting the benefits.
The key, then, is not to limit where WiFi can be used to approved areas but rather to limit who can access it. This is the goal of encryption.
Encryption applies an algorithm to scramble data. In the case of wireless the algorithm is based on a key, which is a passphrase. Anyone with the passphrase can decode the encryption, and anyone who doesn’t have the passphrase will be left starting at digital muck that means nothing even if they do manage to connect and intercept the transmission.
There are a few types of encryption available, and they’re divided into the broad groups of WEP and WPA. WEP is old, and cracking it is not difficult for most hackers. The ONLY reason you’d want to use WEP is if you have a very old wireless device that doesn’t support WPA.
The newer, more complex WPA option is far better. Although not uncrackable (nothing is), there’s been limited demonstrations of successful in-the-wild cracks on WPA secured wireless systems. For home users who have no reason to suspect themselves a specific target of cracking (i.e. you don’t happen to work at Area 51) there’s no reason to distrust WPA.
Image Credit: Safe House Software http://www.safehousesoftware.com/FileEncryption.aspx
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Advanced Security – Tunneling
Using wireless encryption to secure a connection is great, but there’s just one problem – you can only make sure that wireless networks under your personal control are using the proper security measures. What happens when you want to use a wireless network that’s outside of your control or *gasp* left purposely unsecured so that anyone can access it? The horror, the horror!
There is one solution, however, and that’s the use of a technique called tunneling. This creates a specific connection between two computers, one of which is mobile and one of which is kept at a secure location. All of the Internet traffic sent by the mobile PC is directed towards the secure PC, which accesses the Internet on the mobile PC’s behalf and then sends it back.
What’s the advantage? It’s possible to encryption the connection between the mobile and secure PC – thus adding encryption to WiFi, even if you are on an unsecure network you can’t control. That’s nifty, and quite useful. Companies very commonly make use of tunneling in order to provide secure connections to employees, but there’s no reason an individual can’t do it as well.
Well, okay, there are two reasons: Difficulty and expense. Setting up a server in your home for use as a tunnel is not easy. You’re likely better of using a virtual server service, which will set you up with an account and a portion of a server that can be dedicated to your tunneling.
Tunneling is in fact a bit extreme for the purposes of most home users. If you’re out and about, your security won’t be at great risk so long as you don’t access password protected accounts over unsecure WiFi.
Image Credit: http://superasagi.wordpress.com
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Both of the options above are excellent ways to increase the security of WiFi connections, and will thwart 99.999% of threats.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can ever be 100% secure. I know that’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s true, and it’s important to recognize so that you never take actions under the assumption that your wireless security is absolutely untouchable.
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Makeuseof: What A VPN Tunnel Is & How To Set One Up http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/vpn-tunnel-set/
Wikipedia: WiFi Protected Access http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wi-Fi_Protected_Access