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How to Secure Your Wireless Router

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Wireless RouterIf someone goes on the internet using your wireless router and commits a crime, you probably won’t be found liable. You will, however, get a visit from the police and they’ll treat you like the perpetrator until they learn otherwise. If that seems fine with you, consider this, they probably won’t come at 2pm in the afternoon with a polite knock on the door. They’ll come at 2am, with a battering ram, and have you handcuffed on the floor in your pajamas wondering what the heck is going on.

All because you failed to secure your wireless router.

Years ago, all you had to worry about with an open wireless network was that someone was going to slow down your Internet connection. These days, criminals are becoming savvier and looking to use open wireless networks to commit crimes.

Don’t Broadcast & Change the Name

Security through obscurity – hackers can’t break into something if they don’t know it’s there. The first thing you need to do is turn off broadcasting of the SSID – that’s the name the router goes by. When you turn off broadcasting, you can’t “look” into the air to see what routers are available.

By changing the name, someone can’t guess the name of the router as they fish for routers to connect to. If you left the name as “netgear” and turned off broadcasting, someone can blindly connect to your router because they know it’s name.

WEP & WPA Encryption

The second thing you need to setup with your router is encryption. WEP stands for Wireless Encryption Protocol and it’s the older, less secure sibling of Wireless Protected Access (WPA) – go with WPA or WPA2 if you can because WEP can be cracked fairly easily. You’ll have to look at your router’s instructions to know how to set this up.

Another reason to secure your wireless router and use encrypted communications is to prevent someone from “packet sniffing” your data. Since wireless signals are transmitted through the air, anyone nearby can collect that data and read it. Encryption is important because it makes that data unreadable (or at least very difficult to read).

When selecting a password for the encryption key, be sure to use strong passwords – like you would a bank account.

MAC Address Authentication

Finally, you can tell your router which devices can connect to it. MAC stands for Media Access Control and each wireless device (technically the network interface) has a unique MAC address that identifies it. By giving your router a list of MAC addresses that can connect, a random device can’t connect to your network even if they were to break the encryption.

MAC addresses can be faked, so this can’t be your only form of security, but the intruder has to know a valid MAC address on the list (which he or she could probably figure out if they were so inclined – just look at the other broadcasting machines in the area and try their MAC addresses).

Don’t Be An Easy Target

In the end, the key is to provide enough of a hurdle that the criminal moves on. Remember The Club for cars? The Club was a red bar that supposedly made it harder for someone to steal a car. One of its greatest triumphs was its color because it was easy to see inside of a car. A car thief, upon seeing the Club, would just move on. If I’m on a street filled with cars, there’s going to be one that won’t have the Club and I’m going to steal that one – why make things harder on myself?

You should apply a similar principle here. Just don’t be an easy mark. 🙂

(if you want some more suggestions on how to secure your home wireless network, PC World has a great article on the subject)

(photo: roychung1993)

{ 17 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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17 Responses to “How to Secure Your Wireless Router”

  1. I’m an IT guy, and I’ve never heard of or thought about criminals using an unsecured wireless network to commit crimes. Good, accurate post!

  2. tbork84 says:

    It can be a little bit intimidating to try and set up a router for security sometimes. I helped my parents set their router up and help them out from time to time to connect new devices. Its not a bad thing to ask a relative or friend who is comfortable with such things for help setting it up and maybe even instructions on how to connect new devices.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “When you turn off broadcasting, you can’t “look” into the air to see what routers are available”. That is not true, it just depends on who is looking. But more importantly, turning off ssid broadcast will created a vulnerability for your laptops and smartphones while out and about. When ssid broadcast is turned off wifi clients essentially broadcast the ssid it wants to connect to and a hacker can use this to attack your device.

  4. Jodi says:

    I actually had this happen to a neighbor, and they came knocking at the door at around 7 am and scared everyone! Apparently the guy stealing their internet was sitting at mcdonalds, and was stealing identity

  5. Strebkr says:

    You have to balance the need for security vs convenience. It sounds nice to set up a friends router to not broadcast the SSID and have a long password, until they have friends over who want to connect, but they don’t remember the network name or password.

    I think the best advice is the last one. Don’t be an easy mark.

    • NateUVM says:

      You can grab a wireless router that has a guest network incorporated. Similar network name. Easy to remember password, but can change to whatever you want. Can still turn the SSID broadcast off, so it’s just as “invisible.” Not practical to limit the MAC addresses, though. Usually unknown at the time the router is configured. But check out the options.

  6. billsnider says:

    An excellant post. I have a better understanding of a router now.

    Bill Snider

  7. Aaron says:

    I’ve read advice similar to this elsewhere, but the consensus seems to be that disabling SSID broadcast and enabling MAC filtering are more nuisance than protection (so easily to overcome) and are not worthwhile. Note that the PC World article does not mention either.

    Just change the router ID, set a good admin password, perhaps disable wireless administration, and use a good WPA2 password, and you’ll have a network that’s both secure and convenient for you and legitimate visitors to use.

    • Strebkr says:

      Yes, I forgot. Disable wireless admininistration. This is only possible if you have a desktop hooked into your network, but very effective since the admin has to be physically hooked in. This stops wireless laptops from changing your settings if they crack your password.

    • NateUVM says:

      Have discovered that turning off the SSID broadcast can also lead to more or less random connectivity issues. I’ve experienced this first-hand and, after consulting the WWW, it would appear that my experience is not unique, for what it’s worth.

  8. skylog says:

    this is such an important thing, yet so many people do not take the few minutes needed to take care of it.

    i set up a router for my girlfriend and her roommate. took care of everything. it was locked down. somehow, her roommate messed everything up and it was essentially open. a week or two later they received a letter from their ISP as someone was downloading essentially every movie known to man using their connection. everything worked out in the end, but it just as easily could not have.

  9. poscogrubb says:

    On the router, disable wireless administration (as mentioned in an earlier comment). This means that to change router settings such as WPA key and port forwarding and MAC filters, you must use a computer connected to the router via Ethernet cable.

    Also, some routers have the capability of allowing you to log on to the administrative interface from anywhere on the Internet through a web browser. Make sure that is disabled, too.

    Your router may also provide logs of MAC addresses that have connected. You can use these logs to determine if a device other than your own has connected to your WiFi network.

  10. I only recently put a lock/password on my router! It’s amazing how much faster it works now! I am guessing a lot of people were using it for their own personal use.

  11. mercurybc says:

    On wireless router Netgear wgr614v10 , there is a tiny black button, marked as “wireless on/off ” ,if you HOLD it a couple of seconds , it turns off the wireless part of the router and the solid blue LED light of wireless in the front of router turns off too…but still other lights stay on and you can use the router as a modem …may be other routers have that option too

  12. Bob says:

    Consider also updating the firmware on your router as routers can also have vulnerabilities. Patching the vulnerabilities via a firm update with prevent hackers from exploiting your router and gaining unauthorized access to it.

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