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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Hackers out trolling for your Wi-Fi connection

By Kim Komando

Wi-Fi is a popular way to network home computers. But most users don't take the extra step to lock it down. The radio waves that Wi-Fi uses are broadcast beyond the walls of your home, where they can be intercepted by anyone else with a wireless connection.

Hackers can take advantage of unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Some, called war drivers, drive around neighborhoods looking for open networks.

The following steps can help protect your home network and personal information:

1. Stop broadcasting to the world. By default, most access points send a short message repeating the network's SSID (Service Set Identifier) name. Anybody nearby can easily detect that you have a wireless network, find its name and jump on. By disabling the SSID broadcast, you are no longer telling the neighborhood that you have a wireless network.

Additionally, rename the SSID. Don't use your name or something easily identifiable.

2. Change the password on your access point. Default passwords, which are often published as part of access point instruction manuals, are common knowledge.

3. Use encryption. There are two standards of encryption. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is an older method. It uses a constant 64- or 128-bit key that should deter all but the most experienced hackers.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) uses 256-bit encryption, which is much harder to decode. WPA also generates dynamic, or constantly changing, encryption keys. By the time a hacker breaks one key, a new one will have taken its place. If you're buying new gear, make sure it supports WPA.

Encryption does have a downside: It can slow your network.

4. Enable Media Access Control (MAC) filtering. MAC is an address assigned to each wireless card. The address, six sets of paired characters, is usually printed on the back of your wireless card.

MAC filtering tells your access point to grant access only to MAC addresses you enter.

You can do your own security check after implementing these measures. Install the free program NetStumbler (www.netstumbler.com) onto a laptop or personal digital assistant. This program will detect open Wi-Fi networks. After installing the program, walk around the outside of your house or apartment with your laptop or handheld to see what a hacker might see. If your network is secure, NetStumbler shouldn't detect anything.