Most home computer networks have a router with a wireless component. Here's what to know about wireless security and how to ensure a safe Internet connection.
If you have a broadband Internet connection, chances are you also have access to a wireless network. Many Internet service providers (ISPs) now include routers with wireless capabilities for users. But more wireless availability brings security concerns.
Here's what you need to know about keeping Wi-Fi Internet access secure.
Most ISP routers let you create a home network by connecting devices with wireless receiver cards — desktop, laptop, smartphone or tablet — to the wireless signal. Of course, you can still use the wired connection via Ethernet cables.
The distance a wireless signal can be detected depends on the router’s signal strength and how many devices used in your home. Standard routers provide a signal strong enough for anyone in your home. If the signal is weak on the patio or in the basement, you may need a wireless amplifier or signal booster.
Data transfer speeds
Your connection speed also depends on your router. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) developed a series of wireless standards that have been adopted by major manufacturers. Here’s more about them.
802.11, the original, supported a data transfer rate of up to 2 megabits per second (Mbps). It’s extinct.
802.11b uses the 2.4 gigahertz radio frequency and goes up to 11 Mbps, which is comparable to basic ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line, or high bandwidth digital information transfer over your phone line) or cable Internet speeds.
802.11g offers speeds up to 54 Mbps.
802.11n has rates to 100 Mbps.
802.11a/c can reach up to 1.3 gigabytes per second.
Speeds are maximums and aren’t guaranteed. The number of network users, distance from the source and each device’s wireless card type play a role in data transfer rates.
Because wireless signals spread in all directions, it's possible for someone living nearby (or in a vehicle near your home) to detect your home wireless network. If your network doesn't have a password, anyone can access it.
Who’s using your network?
To find out how many people are accessing your network, turn off all wireless devices in your home. Next, check your router's instruction manual for a Web address and router login and password. Go to the Web address and enter the both.
Models differ, but look for a "security" or "connection settings" tab. There, you’ll see how many users are connected to your network. If you've shut off all your devices but see a connection, someone else is using your wireless without permission.
Some routers let you ban the Internet Protocol (IP) or Media Access Control (MAC) address of devices to prevent them from accessing the network again.
To improve wireless security, you’ll want to create a strong password that uses:
• At least eight characters.
• Letters (including capitals).
• Special symbols.
Don’t use anything easily guessed (house numbers, birthdays or the word "password").
Wireless networks also have different levels of data encryption. Ideally, look for WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2). If your router has only WPA version 1, use that. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) was the first wireless security standard and, while better than nothing, is easily hacked.
Contact a computer professional if you need specific advice or aren’t comfortable setting up your wireless router.
To stay safe when using a home wireless connection, follow some basic guidelines:
Use a strong password.
Never give the password out.
Change the password every few months.
Avoid online banking or big purchases. If your wireless network is compromised, a hacker could get access to your information.
Routinely run antivirus and malware-detection software. If you don’t, and a wireless device of yours is infected by rootkits, spyware or Trojans, your password could become common knowledge.
Wireless networks offer convenience and flexibility but must be used carefully. Know how your network functions, set up proper password and encryption controls and regularly check devices for malware.