- Chuck Gray
Wi-Fi changed the networked world. Our laptops could finally, truly be operated on our laps independent of a network cable. Wi-Fi has also made computing significantly less secure. It’s not as if relying on a hardwired connection makes you hack-proof, but relying on Wi-Fi alone for all your online needs is dangerous.
Wi-Fi sort of seems like magic, doesn’t it? Hit a button on your laptop or device and poof—you’re online! I think we take that for granted these days with free Wi-Fi everywhere from coffee houses to big box retailers to bookstores and libraries. At this point, depending on where you live, free Wi-Fi is almost as prevalent as 3G and 4G cellular data connections. Maybe more so in some cases. Still, relying on Wi-Fi too much, especially public Wi-Fi, is one of the largest risks you can take these days. But how are we supposed to not use it when it’s so convenient? I’m not going to tell you to not use it at all, but I am going to tell you how to use it well, and what not to use it for
First of all, free or paid public Wi-Fi: don’t use it if you’ve got a choice. By choice, I mean if you’ve got a smartphone or tablet with a cellular data connection like 3G or 4G LTE. There’s a gross misconception that Wi-Fi, even free, public Wi-Fi is a better choice than your cellular connection. While it’s true that connecting to a Wi-Fi network will save on your monthly allotment of cellular bandwidth, it is far less secure. If I need to use my smartphone to check my bank balance or refill prescriptions from my pharmacy online, I disconnect from Wi-Fi and use my cellular data plan.
If you don’t have a mobile data option or you’re using a device that’s Wi-Fi only, do not use it on public Wi-Fi to access any truly sensitive information. Don’t check your bank account. Don’t go shopping with a credit card. Use it just for casual Web browsing and maybe email or social networking. It depends on how much a particular online service knows about you and how much you care if you’re being spied on. Definitely don’t log in to any sites whose login pages aren’t secured. If you don’t see “https” in the URL, don’t log in using public Wi-Fi. Above all else, don’t leave your computer or device connected to the network when it’s not actively being used! Connect to the Wi-Fi, do what you need to do, and then disconnect.
The rules are a little different for home Wi-Fi, where you should be using some form of security protocol. Wi-Fi security is a feature built into your router, not something you have to purchase separately. But how far should you trust it? The earliest and most prevalent security protocol, Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP), is a joke. A quick Google search and some techie know-how will cut through WEP like a warm knife through butter. For some reason it is still a choice included with most modern routers, but don’t use it. The most secure protocol you can be using right now is Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2). While not completely hack-proof, it seems to be the industry’s “good enough” solution for the moment. After all, there’s not a technology in existence that hasn’t in some manner been turned on its head.
So you need to make sure that you are using WPA2 Wi-Fi security protocol at home. Refer to your router’s manual for directions on how to do this. If you’re using a router or combination modem/router supplied by your Internet service provider, call their tech support. Regardless, make a habit of changing your home Wi-Fi password on a regular basis. The interval is up to you, but I would make the change at least once every three months. That can be sort of a pain if you’ve got a lot of computers and devices that make use of the network since you’ll have to go through each of them and change the password so they can connect again. Still, I can’t overstate the importance of doing so.
In addition to changing the password for the Wi-Fi network itself, you should also change the router’s password. This is a different password from the network. It is the password used to log in to the router’s settings and the one you would need in order to change the Wi-Fi network’s password. If you don’t, you take the chance that the router manufacturer used the exact same device password for every box they shipped, meaning that a hacker would only need to know the one password to break into untold numbers of networks using the same router. In my experience, the ISP technicians who make house calls to set up home networks rarely take the time to change this password, let alone show their customers how to do it themselves. The next time you sign up for a new Internet service provider and have a tech come to your home, don’t let them leave until they’ve shown you how to change both the router password and the Wi-Fi password. And don’t let them tell you that you can’t, which they may.
Generating Passwords for Wi-Fi
Speaking of passwords such as these, you ought to make them as long and complex as possible. The longer the password, the harder it is to crack. And let me tell you that the standard eight characters just isn’t enough anymore. I recommend that passwords for your Wi-Fi network and your router be at least 32 characters long. A word to the wise though—don’t use special characters, just use numbers and upper and lowercase letters. Special characters don’t play well with Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
Generating a strong password is difficult. You want it to be as random as possible. Do not use regular words. Norton Security has a free password generator at https://identitysafe.norton.com/password-generator/ which will allow you set the number of characters and type of characters in your password. I just came up with WRaSteYej838b8awraFUpA2umeChaSPa at the click of a button. You might think you’d accomplish the same thing by just mashing your keyboard, but you’d be wrong, especially if you’re a proficient typist. Your hands will come up with more predictable passwords whether you want them to or not. The power of muscle memory, working against you.
Don't cut the cord just yet!
With all this said, the strongest home network doesn’t use Wi-Fi at all. I know that’s not an option for everyone, so, you know, read everything above, but if you can get away with it, connect every computer in your home with an “old-fashioned” network cable and disable Wi-Fi completely. Without a radio signal to intercept, your home network just became infinitely more secure.
In most cases though, living without Wi-Fi these days just isn’t feasible. So much of our computing is done on tablets and smartphones which rely on Wi-Fi or a mobile data connection. You’re never going to find a network jack on any of these devices. So make sure to exercise every precaution.