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How to secure a wireless network

How to secure a wireless network Admit it; we’ve all mooched off someone else’s WiFi network at one point or another. However, the world of WiFi isn’t as innocent as we’d like to believe. Connecting to an unsecure wireless network can leave your computer or mobile device susceptible to a plethora of security risks and unwanted activity. Not only that, but unauthorized users can slow your connection down to a crawl, access your private data, or even use the network to perform shady activities that can be traced back to you. While it may seem incredibly complicated (what’s “WPA,” anyway?), securing your wireless network is rather simple. It just takes a bit of standard encryption, limiting access, and password creativity.

We’re here to help you secure your wireless network so you can thwart pesky intruders and protect your oh-so-precious personal data from falling into the wrong hands. We can’t guarantee it’ll keep out the hacking guru down the block – but it’s a start.

The basics

When accessing a wireless connection, you’re typically picking up an Internet connection sent wirelessly from a router or similar device. If unsecured, any computer within range can gain access to this network.  

Most routers can be accessed by entering “192.168.1.1” in your browser’s address bar and typing in a username and password. The defaults do vary from router to router. Check the instructional manual included with your router for the default IP address, username, and password. If unavailable, try looking up the router’s defaults at routerpasswords.com, or cirt.net. Most security options can only be accessed through the router’s administrative console and settings.

Enable encryption

Encryption is one of your first lines of defense when it comes to securing a wireless network. It encodes the data sent wirelessly between your device and the router, essentially scrambling the information and restricting open access. There are two main types of encryption you can use:

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP): Introduced in the late ’90s, WPA was one of the first security algorithms available to help ensure a protected network. Although it may still be an option for older routers and equipment, it has demonstrated numerous flaws over the years, essentially leading to its demise as far as Internet security is concerned. It’s better than nothing, but it’s outdated and fairly easy to crack.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA & WPA2): Developed as a successor to WEP, WPA and WPA2 are two of the more common advanced security protocols currently used to protect wireless networks. The encryption keys they use change each time a device accesses the network, making it more difficult to hack than WEP. WPA2 is the encryption of choice.

Keep in mind that your device, router, and any other equipment being used must utilize the same encryption to work properly. Your network is only as secure as the least-secure device that’s connected to it. If you have an older router, we suggest replacing it with one that features WPA2 capability. If you’re serious about securing your wireless network, check out our wireless router buying guide for some helpful tips.

Wireless routers are often not set up with the encryption feature enabled and you’ll need to turn it on before choosing your security options. Most manufacturers will include instructions on how to enable security, while others will go a step further and provide a setup wizard that will include security options when you first access the router. If they don’t, check the company’s website for more information.

Choose WPA2 if possible and create a strong password to help ensure limited access. Try a combination of letters and numbers that only you would know. Also, the longer the password, the tougher it will be to crack. Strive for 10 characters or more. Check out our guide to picking strong passwords for more info. 

Change the router defaults

Make sure to change your router’s factory presets (i.e. your admin login and password) to something more secure to prevent any unauthorized users from accessing and changing your router settings. You may also want to change the Service Set Identifier (SSID) name while you’re at it. Most router manufacturers will simply name the SSID after the manufacturer, such as “Linksys,” but it’s a good idea to change the name so others don’t assume you’re using the router’s default username and password as well.  

Turn off SSID broadcasting

The SSID functions as a broadcast message that notifies your presence to any and every device within range of your network. All wireless routers have an option to turn off this broadcast, which hides your network from people who may want to access it. It won’t encrypt your data, but no one will try to access a network they don’t know you have. However, this option is not for everyone as some devices have problems connecting to wireless networks if they don’t broadcast the SSID.

Allow access based on MAC addresses

Every network-enabled device – from desktops to tablets – is equipped with a unique, identifying number called a Machine Access Code (MAC). Most common wireless routers will have an option to filter access solely based on the MAC address, allowing wireless access only to devices you have preapproved and prohibiting all others. Simply add the MAC addresses into your router’s administrative settings to enable the filtering option.

The process for locating the MAC address for a particular device depends on which device you intend to use.

When using Windows, open a command prompt, type cmd, and press the “Enter” key. Then type ipconfig .all and hit “Enter” once again to view a detailed list of your computer’s IP settings. The MAC address will be listed as the “Physical Address,” or the six pairs of alphanumeric characters set apart by dashes.

When using Mac OS X, open the system preferences panel, click the “Network” option, and select “WiFi” from the list in the left-hand column. From there, click the “Advanced” option to see the Mac Address (it will be listed under “Wi-Fi ID”).

Other devices, such as a smartphone or tablet, will take a little more detective work, but you can always refer to the owner’s manual if you are having trouble finding where the information is listed. It is possible to clone a MAC address to fool the router, so limiting access based on MAC addresses should be used along with other security precautions.

Limit DHCP

Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) allows you to limit the number of IP addresses your router can assign on your wireless network, thus limiting the amount of devices that can connect. This can be done by accessing your router’s administrative setting and updating the number of devices you want to connect (both wired and wireless). A decent hacker could bypass around the security measure, but it will most likely keep the everyday user at bay.

Reduce wireless signal range

It often proves more difficult to access a wireless network that’s not in range. Your router might have fantastic signal strength, but what if you live in an apartment building where other tenants are living just on the other side of the wall? Try limiting your router’s signal range to only a specified area through one or multiple options. It may take a bit of trial and error, depending on the method.

Some routers will give you an option to decrease the transmitting power in the administrative settings. If possible, change the mode of the router to 802.11g instead of higher signal strengths such as 802.11n or 802.11b, or use a separate wireless channel altogether.

More old-school approaches to limiting your wireless signal include placing the router in certain areas of your house, away from windows, under a bed, or in a cupboard. You can also try wrapping foil around the router antennas to better direct the wireless signal, but this can also slow your connection or even boost your signal strength depending on how you do it.

Disable remote administration privileges

Disabling remote administration privileges is a great way to close the door on anyone looking to access your security settings. The option should be located in your router’s administrative settings and requires all security modifications to be changed directly through a wired connection to your router.

Try one or all of these

It’s hard to completely secure a wireless network, but these steps will assure that your wireless signal is better protected. Use a combination (preferably all) of the steps when securing wireless networks, instead of just one or two of the methods. Also, remember that you can always turn off your wireless network when not in use as an extra precaution. Security is not something to slack on.