Q: I have a Linksys (wireless) router. What should I configure in the setup to make it secure from hackers? — Tony
A: Wireless networking is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the history of personal computing.
An inexpensive box that allows any computer within a hundred feet or so to connect to a network or share an Internet connection . . . such a deal!
Because a wireless router is more or less broadcasting a signal that can be picked up by anyone within range, it is crucial that proper steps are taken to reduce the chances of being exploited.
Notice I said "reduce" and not "eliminate." The only totally secure system is one that is not plugged in or is turned completely off all the time. Complete security from hackers is nearly impossible, but having said that, the vast majority of wireless routers (aka access points) are set up with no security measures in place at all.
I routinely see situations in both residential and commercial settings where a neighbor’s wireless access point is wide open to any outside user within range. The main reason for this is that the person who set up the router/access point has left the settings at the factory defaults, generally because of a lack of knowledge.
On a recent visit to the house of a friend who was having problems with a wireless network, I was astonished to find no less than six other wireless networks that were completely open to access by their computer from within their house! Every one of the access points was left at the default name or SSID (Service Set Identifier), the default channel (6) and the default security level (NONE!). What was even more disturbing was that many of them were installed and set up by subcontractors of major broadband Internet service providers.
They should know better.
The first step in creating some security of your wireless router is to change the SSID from "linksys" to something else. Use a combination of numbers and letters to make it harder to guess. Don’t use your last name (I often see this in the field) as that would just make it easier for a devious neighbor to know who they are attempting to exploit.
Also, change the administrator password and turn off the SSID broadcast option, which means your router will no longer be screaming "Here I am, and here is my name . . . come exploit me!"
WEP, or Wired Equivalent Privacy, is a much-maligned security protocol, but it does create another roadblock, which helps to diminish your chances of being randomly exploited by someone driving by your house.
Look in the "Wireless Security" section of the router’s setup screens and turn on the WEP option. If all of your wireless components are from the same manufacturer, use the highest possible setting. If you are mixing products from multiple manufacturers, you may have to use one of the lower settings in order for the products to talk to each other.
Finally, you can add "MAC address filtering," which only allows machines that have been cleared via their Media Access Control address (a unique identifier for each network card) to connect to the router.
The bottom line on wireless security is that you will likely have no idea if a neighbor or passer-by is exploiting your network, so don’t take it lightly. If you don’t know how to properly configure your router, find someone or pay someone who can!
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the "Computer Corner" radio show at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KTAR (620 AM) and the "Tech No Phobia" television show at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Cox 9. Readers may send questions to email@example.com.