Many people will be getting shiny, new wireless gadgets this holiday season. This might be a new smart phone, a laptop or netbook computer, or a tablet such as the iPad. One of the most attractive features of these devices is that they can connect to the Internet wirelessly, using Wi-Fi networks found in homes, offices, and many public locations (hotspots). This is a great feature, but it does come with risks.
Many wireless networks offer no data protection, so people nearby can eavesdrop on the wireless signals and monitor what you are doing online. Even more frightening, new tools such as Firesheep allow other people to easily hijack wireless Internet connections, take over sessions with various online services (email, Facebook), and impersonate you online.
There are some ways that you can reduce these risks.
If you set up a wireless network at home or in the office, make sure that you enable the security features that are included with your wireless router. It should only take a couple of minutes. At a minimum, you should:
- Change the default administrator password, since these passwords are shared by all devices made by the same manufacturer and they are well known.
- Change the wireless network name (known as the SSID) to something that is unique, but not related to your real identity (e.g., “mynewnetwork” instead of “TheSmithNetwork”).
- Turn on wireless encryption (preferably WPA2 or WPA) and choose a long, complicated password. You don’t need to memorize it and you can write it down. You will have to enter it once in each new device that joins the wireless network.
The exact steps that you follow to change these settings depends on the type of router you are using, so read your instructions.
But you don’t just want to use your new gadget at home or work, you want to take it with you. Most public wireless services, such as the ones you find in coffee shops, don’t turn on wireless encryption. So you need to find other ways to protect your data from eavesdroppers. There are a number of ways to do this:
- Find another way to connect to the Internet when away from the home or office. Your wireless device may also have a cell phone feature, and connecting to the Internet over the cell networks can be more secure than public hotspots, but it does cost money. You can even connect some laptops and notebooks to cell networks using a feature called “tethering”, but make sure that your cell plan allows it and you have a large enough data plan.
- When connecting to a website (like an email service), choose sites that offer secure connections (ones that have “https” in the address instead of “http”). Some services are now offering secure connections by default (e.g., Google Mail) and other services often have a secure connection available. Try changing the address in your browser from “http” to “https”, but make sure that the site doesn’t just turn back to “http” once you’ve logged in. For Firefox (an alternative web browser you can download), there are helpful plug-ins, such as HTTPS Everywhere and Force-TLS, which try to ensure you are using an “https” connection wherever it is supported. There are no equivalent tools for Internet Explorer. (In fact, you should be looking for web services that offer secure connections regardless of what kind of Internet connection you are using. It is just good practice, and more websites should be using “https” by default. If a service you use does not offer secure “https” connections, ask them to start.)
- Make your own secure connection by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPNs protect your network traffic starting at your computer and ending at a remote VPN server. If you don’t already have access to a VPN (often provided by workplaces for their employees), low-cost and advertising-supported VPN services are available. VPNs do take a bit of work to set up, but they are worth it. Tech-savvy people can set up their own secure connection back to their home using an SSH tunnel.
So, enjoy your new wireless device, but be careful when using unprotected connections to the Internet. Set up a secure wireless network at home or work; look for services that offer secure “https” connections; and protect yourself using a VPN.