Imagine your surprise if the provider of your Internet service — or, worse, a police detective — told you that you were in trouble for downloading child pornography. It could be happening without your knowledge, courtesy of a hacker who’s using your wireless network for nefarious purposes.
Wireless computing has changed the way we work, communicate and spend large chunks of our leisure time. Wireless networks have been subject to unauthorized use since the first “airport” freed users from an electronic tether.
Being wireless generally depends on a broadband Internet connection into your home; this “access point” is a cable or DSL line that runs into a modem. To create a wireless network, you connect the access point to a wireless router, which broadcasts a signal through the air, sometimes several hundred feet away.
The danger of such a setup is that anyone with a computer that can operate wirelessly can tap into that network. That could be a hacker hiding nearby, or even a neighbor. Any illicit activity over the network (on the hacker’s computer) can be traced back to your account.
In Orono, police have been investigating such activity at a local business. The firm has two network servers, one for the business, the other offered free for public use. Detective Andrew Whitehouse says someone hijacked the public server and gave it a crude name, which users saw when logging on.
The firm’s financial information wasn’t at risk because tight enough security protocols were in place. The more relaxed access rules that put the public users at ease made it less challenging for the hacker to gain access for his or her mischief. The lesson here is not to transmit or download sensitive or personal information if you’re not sure the wireless network in a public place is secure.
What about your wireless setup at home? Tighten security by using stronger passwords. The maker of your router likely gave it a standard default password; you should change it to a longer password, containing letters, numbers and symbols, and NO words you find in a dictionary.
You also can turn off a feature called identifier broadcasting. The router sends a signal to any device in the area, and hackers can use that signal.
If your wireless router permits, disable that feature. Your identifier is probably also a standard, default ID; change it to something unique that only you know.
As with any computer that visits the Internet, keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware up to date. Use a firewall. And use encryption to scramble the communications over your wireless network. Most wireless routers have encryption; if yours doesn’t, consider upgrading.
It’s also wise to turn off your wireless network when you’re not using it; hackers can’t access the systems when they’re turned off. Of a wireless network, Detective Whitehouse says, “It’s just as secure as having it hard-wired if you take those steps to keep it secure.”
For tips on wireless security, visit http://ftc.gov and search for “wireless network.”
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org.