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Securing a Wireless Network

written by: William Busse•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/25/2010

The growth of wireless networks in the home and office has provided users with significant flexibility in accessing the Internet and file sharing. Unfortunately, an unsecured network can be easily exploited and result in identity theft, fraudulent purchases and extreme inconvenience.

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    Understanding Wi-Fi

    The expanding availability of broadband internet access has allowed for the substantial growth of home and small office wireless networks. The low entry cost, enhanced data transfer speeds and improvements in signal range have made networking the preferred method for internet access and peripheral sharing.

    Small wireless networks revolve around a device called a router. Computers can be connected to the router either through hard wired Ethernet cable or with wireless adapters configured to the 802.11 standard. A wireless router provides the freedom to move the remote computer within the broadcast signal range without losing connectivity.

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    The Importance or Network Security

    Unfortunately, the convenience of a wireless network also presents significant challenges for those wondering how to make a Wi-Fiman and laptop  network secure. Since communications between remote adapters and the router is wireless, an unsecured network is accessible to any computer that is 802.11 compliant and within broadcast range. With a few simple mouse clicks, every feature of the network available to authorized users can be exploited by a network intruder as well.

    Although the level and destructiveness of cyber crime varies, the theft of anything that has not been properly paid for is unsettling. The most common form of network criminal is the broadband thief who exploits unsecured internet connections without paying for it. Unauthorized network access burdens the system and can degrade upload and download speeds while adding additional charges to metered services.

    Professional criminal “hackers” can inflict far more serious damage. This can include planting a virus in the system, downloading illicit materials, stealing bank and credit card information and making fraudulent purchases. Unfortunately these unlawful acts can be done under the guise of the network operators IP address. Serious criminal activity can be tracked through the internet service provider (ISP) and ultimately to the account holder. Through lack of network securitization, innocent victims can face identity theft, corruption of finances and even an investigation for cyber crimes.

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    WEP and WPA Security Encryption

    Virus protection and firewalls do not shield a network from intrusion. Although software and router based firewalls may protect individual computers from remote attack, anyone logged on to a network will have access to the same files and features as every other user. To shield the network from an unwanted breach, security measures at the router level must be deployed.

    Understanding how to make a Wi-Fi network secure begins with exploring the imbedded router security procedures. The two primary methods of protecting a network are through Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).

    WEP is an older security protocol that utilizes a single encryption key. Constantly evolving hacker software and superior computer speeds have made WEP encryption relatively easy to unlock for the experienced cyber thief. Although more difficult to set up, WPA systems employ layered and constantly changing encryption algorithms that make the system far more difficult to decipher. WPA-2 is similar in structure to WPA but offers an even more aggressive encryption methodology.

    WPA utilizes a pass phrase or security key anywhere from 8-63 characters. The router will offer instructions as to how to access the security screen set up. After creating the security key, it is important to write it down and store it in a secure location. After selecting the AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) option, every remote computer expecting to join the network must right click on the internet access icon in the taskbar and select the appropriate available network from the list. A dialogue box will ask for the network security key and when entered, access to the network should be granted.

    If the router is older and the network speed is substantially reduced when using WPA, WEP encryption should be used as an as an alternative. WEP is less secure than WPA, but certainly preferable to an unsecured network.

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    Additional Security Measures

    For added security, it is recommended that the user periodically change the administrator password as well as the SSID (Service Set Identifier) name in the router’s set up screen. It is also advisable that the user disable the “SSID broadcast” option as well. This will make the network essentially invisible to those outside the immediate sphere.