Getting Comfortable With The Basics

Secure your home wireless network

Wireless is a great choice for a home network. Physically awkward or nearly impossible connections between computers become easy through a wireless network. But wireless comes with its own brand of security worries.
Wireless computers and routers use radio waves to communicate. Those waves are sometimes strong enough to carry outside your house. If your network is unprotected, your information is begging to be hacked.

Many intruders already know this. They'll drive through neighborhoods searching for stray signals with radio equipment. With the right information, they could access your networked computers and files. They could even borrow your Internet connection.

Hackers search for people who use the default factory settings. Those settings usually include low or no security. You can start protecting your network by reconfiguring your wireless router.

But most folks don't even know how to change the router's configuration. I'm going to put you on the right track. The descriptions that follow are general, because different brands require different steps.

Finding your router's settings

Most wireless routers are configured through a browser such as Internet Explorer. First, you need to connect your wireless router to a computer. Yes, you're already connected through your network. You can otherwise connect directly with an Ethernet cable. Ethernet cables look like telephone cords with large-sized plugs.

Now open your Internet browser. To communicate with the router, you'll need its IP address. You can find this in your manual under a heading like "configuration setup" or "manual configuration." Most routers, for example, have an IP address like

Treat that number as a Web address. Type it directly into your Internet browser's address bar. You'll then be prompted for a user name and password. These will also be listed in your manual.

Finally, you'll see your router's configuration tool. It looks a lot like an ordinary Web page. Now, let's work on security.

Changing your router's settings

Wireless router default settings often disregard security. That's because low security makes it forgiving and easy to install. But now you can eliminate the risky downside of easy installation. Change your router's settings to add a strong layer of security. Different brands put these settings under different menus. But you should be able to find each without trouble.

The best way to protect your wireless network is through encryption. Use WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) for your encryption setting. You'll typically see this setting as WPA-PSK (pre-shared key). You'll be prompted to enter a passphrase of eight to 63 characters–letters, numbers and symbols. The router will use your passphrase to build an encryption key.

WPA2 is the latest and safest version of WPA. It uses AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), one of the few standards approved by the U.S. government. The only weak point of WPA2 is your passphrase. So make it as strong as possible. Here are some tips:
• Use at least 20 characters.
• Avoid words found in a dictionary.
• Include letters, numbers and symbols.

If your router supports only WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), you're not protected. WEP encryption can be cracked within minutes using a few simple tools. Look for updates on the router manufacturer's Web site. If you find no updates for WPA2, it's time for a new router.

Look for a router that is Wi-Fi CERTIFIED for WPA2. Certified routers conform to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standard 802.11i. You can find out more about WPA2 certification at the Wi-Fi Alliance Web site. Keep in mind that the computers on your network also need WPA2 compatibility. Check for updates before resorting to new network adapters.

Changing your computers' settings

Now your router is switched to use WPA2 encryption. But your computers don't yet know what you've done. You'll have to update them with the new setup. Here's what to do for each computer you've got on the network:

Click Start>>Control Panel. Double-click Network Connections. Right-click Wireless Network Connection. Select Properties from the pop-up menu. Select the Wireless Networks tab. Under "Preferred networks," you should see your network listed. Select it and click Properties. If it's not listed, click the Add button. In the box labeled "Network name (SSID)," enter your network's name.

Under Network Authentication, select WPA-PSK. Under "Data encryption," select AES. Under "Network key," enter the same passphrase you used for your router. You'll have to enter it twice to confirm it. Then make sure that the checkbox labeled "The key is provided for me automatically" is not marked. Finally, click OK>>OK.

Windows 98 and Me do not have built-in wireless networking. All of the wireless menu options are provided by your wireless adapter software. Each brand implements its features differently. But most should add wireless options to the same place.

And that's all there is to it! Well, OK, it takes a while to get it done. But encryption makes you a less attractive target for hackers. And if your neighbors were secretly using your Internet service, they've just lost their connection.

Tech News by Topic