Securing your network in a growing wireless world

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A few weeks ago, I was having problems with my wireless printer at home. No matter how many times I rebooted my computer or checked the power supply on my printer or Internet router, nothing seemed to work. Then I noticed something.

When I ran my cursor over the little computer image in the lower right corner of my screen (the one that tells me that I am connected to my wireless home network), a pop-up window showed a different name than the one I gave to my network.

Investigating further, I discovered that this particular computer had connected to another wireless network run by one of my neighbors. In fact, there were five wireless networks, all unsecured, close enough to my house that my machine could detect them.

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Basically, my wireless printer did not carry out the print command I had sent because it couldn't recognize my neighbor's network. My "to-do" list is still floating around somewhere in space, I guess.

Welcome to the increasingly cluttered wireless world of the Internet. Lots of people have wireless connections for their computers. And if US cities like Boston and Philadelphia have their way, everyone will have it, or at least access to it.

But after my computer "jumped networks" I was determined to learn more. So I called Tara Howard, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm that knows a lot about wireless networks. Ms. Howard says that what we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. And down the road, newer wireless technology called Wi-Max will run faster, better, and cover more territory than the Wi-Fi signals we now use.

North America may be slow to move to Wi-Max because there won't be "much traction until devices are available," Howard says. It will probably appear soon in Central and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, she notes, but the day will come when travelers on the Boston–New York express train, for instance, will be able to have access to their wireless networks for the entire duration of the trip, something not possible now.

The idea of accessing the Internet from anywhere is fascinating, but I'm not much of a business traveler these days. And while some businesses struggle with security issues created by large wireless networks, I'm mostly interested in the safety of my little wireless network at home.

Personally, I believe that most people who "piggyback" on someone else's wireless network mean no harm. I confess that I have done this, especially when I'm on the road. Two years ago, for example, I stayed with a friend in New York City and tapped into a nearby apartment's wireless network to access my e-mail.

To help with the search for unguarded wireless networks, people can download free software such as NetStumbler (www.netstumbler.com) or Kismet (www.kismetwireless.net). These programs claim to boost a computer's ability to detect available networks.

So does it really make much of a difference if I or any of my neighbors use a secured wireless connection, or is this just another attempt by big security software firms to make a few more bucks?

Howard pauses before answering.

"Now, security is not my specialty," she says, "In reality, does it matter that much? No. If I go to Starbucks or even at home, most of the time a hacker is not going to come after me. But that's not to say it couldn't happen."

One good reason to secure your wireless network is performance, Howard says. If other people piggyback on your signal, it slows your connection to the Internet and your ability to work as quickly as you might like. This is especially the case for people in large apartment buildings, where it's easy for several people to hop on your network because of their proximity to your signal.

So it's up to you. You can leave your network unsecured and probably be OK, or you can Web surf on the safe side by following some of these suggestions:

•Check your computer's operating system (like Windows XP) to see if its firewall is functioning. A firewall helps prevent someone who hops on your network from accessing the information on your machine. Products by McAfee, Symantec, and others also help with this.

•Change the name of your wireless system, often referred to as the Service Set Identifier (SSID). (All wireless devices in a network need to operate on the same SSID, which is why my printer wouldn't work.) Plenty of personal wireless networks are named "Linksys," the default SSID of routers built by Cisco. Using the default name for your network is like when people never change the home page on their Internet browsers from the one that appeared the first time they used it.

•Turn off the "broadcast" part of the SSID. This feature sends out to the surrounding area the name of your network and if it is secured or not. By not broadcasting the name, when someone scans for available wireless networks, they won't be able to see and use yours unless they can guess what you named it.

You can find other suggestions at the Westchester County Wi-Fi Safety website (http://www.westchestergov.com/idtheft/Wifiinfo.htm).

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