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Protect Your Personal Information When Going Wireless

The convenience of going wireless with your notebook computer is so tempting. Wireless computer connections free you up to work over the Internet all around the house or office or from the local coffeeshop. Many consumers are putting wireless networks in their homes. Wi-Fi hotspots are appearing in many public locations such as cafes, libraries, churches, and airports. You can go online anywhere, it seems. But unless you take the proper security precautions in using Wi-Fi hotspots and in setting up your own wireless network, you are putting your financial and personal information at risk. In this month's report we look at the dangers and the precautions you can take.

Wireless Devices

Most of us think of wireless in relationship to a notebook computer. But there are other devices that can connect wirelessly to a computer or to a wireless network. You may use your cell phone and/or PDA to connect to the Internet. You may synchronize a handheld device with your computer using Bluetooth technology. Even video game and music players are capable of storing personal information.

The Dangers of Wireless Connections

Since a wireless connection doesn't use wires between a computer and Internet connection, anyone within range could intercept an unprotected signal. Here are two very real methods that hackers and scammers use to collect your personal information.

  • An Evil Twin is a wireless connection that is setup to mimic a legitimate wireless connection such as a public hotspot. If you connect to the evil twin instead of the legitimate hotspot, all of the data you send over the connection is collected. This scam is also called wi-phishing.
  • In Wardriving a hacker or scammer drives around neighborhoods with a notebook computer and an omni-directional antenna to locate unsecured wireless networks. They can then connect to and use the network or collect any data sent over the network.

Using Public Hotspots

Public wireless hotspots, called Wi-Fi hotspots, are sprouting up all over. Some are free and others require an access fee. To use a public hotspot you must login into the network. Details for getting connected are located on many hotspot locations' websites. Many public hotspots implement very few security measures in order to make logging in simpler.

Hotspots can be a nice convenience but you should use them cautiously. Here are some do's and don'ts.

  • Use a hotspot to only surf the Web, not to transact personal business.
  • Don't do your online banking or checking of any other financial accounts.
  • Don't make any purchases or anything where you give out personal information including credit card numbers.
  • Disable peer-to-peer (computer to computer) or ad-hoc networking in your wireless setup.
  • Disable file sharing and remote assistance.
  • Use a good firewall.
  • Keep your browser updated.

Home Wireless Networks

If you're planning to set up a wireless network at home or at your small business office, here's an important fact to know: Most networking components are not secure right out of the box. If the security features aren't enabled when the network is installed (or if you didn't enable them when you installed your already up-and-running network) then your personal information is just as much at risk as when you're using a public hotspot.

Securing Your Own Wireless Network

Although most networking components are not secure right out of the box, you can make them secure (or more secure) by changing several of the settings. Experts recommend that you secure your home wireless networks by doing the following:

  • Change the default passwords for accessing the components.
  • Restrict access to the network to specific computers (only the ones that you wish to have use the network).
  • Encrypt the data on the network by enabling WEP or WPA, the names of two types of encryption. WPA is the stronger (and newer) so use it if all of the devices connecting to the network support it.
  • Change the SSID (your network name) and turn off SSID broadcast.
  • Install a firewall on each device.
  • Install and maintain anti-virus software.

You can read more about these security measures in this article from the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT): Securing Wireless Networks.

You can also reduce how far your wireless signal extends beyond your residence by positioning wireless access points & routers away from outside walls, windows, and doorways and adjusting the direction of the antennas.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)

VPNs are private networks established over a public network (such as the Internet). The VPN is established using encryption and other security methods to prevent access to the network and the data in it. Many businesses use VPNs to allow employees to access the company network from outside the company. In order to use a VPN, however, both the computer outside that wants to connect and the computer or network that accepts the connection must have the same and the appropriate VPN software (and hardware where necessary). This aspect of VPN means that, for now, you as an individual can't create a personal VPN that would allow you to safely conduct personal email or personal financial business from a public hotspot. Some Wi-Fi hotspots may say they offer secure connections, but at present, the best practice is not to conduct personal business from public Wi-Fi hotspots or over unsecured home wireless networks.

For More Information

  • Wireless Communications Privacy from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse describes precautions you can take to guard your voice and data privacy when using various wireless devices.
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