Unencrypted connections are great—they’re easy to set up on your wireless router and all of your devices connect automatically. But because they’re unencrypted, hackers can eavesdrop on all of your wireless traffic. Well, almost all of your wireless traffic—anything that uses Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption like websites starting with HTTPS will be encrypted.
Unfortunately, although Facebook and GMail and other sites use SSL for login screens, they don’t use it for their regular connections. In these cases, hackers can still break into your accounts by reading the cookie your Web browser sends to Facebook and Google every time you connect.
If you own the wireless connection, your best solution is to enable encryption on your router. Choose WPA encryption if possible, but on older routers you’ll need to settle for WEP. See the next section for information on the risks of WEP.
If you don’t own the wireless connection, for example you’re at a library or coffee shop, then you need to protect your connection by using one of the plug-ins for your browser which force Facebook, Gmail, and other services to use SSL.
The Wired Equivalence Privacy (WEP) system was part of the original specification for wireless Internet, but within a few years of being released, hackers figured out how to break it. In 2007, three crypto analysts broke into a WEP connection using a 1.7 GHz laptop in less than 1 minute. They published their technique and now any hacker can use it to eavesdrop on any WEP-protected connection.
WEP has been officially replaced by Wifi Protected Access (WPA), but many old routers only support WEP. If you have an option to use WPA, please use it. If you don’t have support for WPA on your router and you’re concerned about security, you should see if the manufacturer of your router offers a firmware upgrade. Otherwise you should buy a newer router.
WPA lets you secure your wireless connection using a password, but this password can be hacked like any other weak password. Because this password helps keep all of your other passwords secure, you should put some extra thought into making it very secure. Besides, you’ll only have to type it once on each computer, so it won’t be much of a hassle to make it extra hard to guess.
I suggest you add a few numbers and some punctuation to your password to help keep hackers from guessing it. Also make sure it’s at least 8 characters long—and preferably 12 characters or more.
No matter how secure you make your wireless network using WPA and strong passwords, you still must trust every user you let onto your network. Once users have access to your network, they can snoop on every packet sent on your wireless connection.
For example, if you’re at a hotel which uses WPA and you log into Facebook, any hacker who’s in a nearby room can also use his WPA-protected connection to snoop on your packets. At an office, employees can snoop on the boss’s WPA connection to get access to confidential information.
High-end routers can give each user their own secure connection, or you can just buy separate cheap routers for each class of user—for example, one router for managers and one router for employees.