Guest Blogger

Lock down your Wi-Fi or the FBI might come knocking

April 26, 2011 10:07 AM EDT

By Tony Bradley, PCWorld

A New York man learned the hard way that leaving your wireless router open to the general public can have some very negative consequences, and that the authorities tend to act first and ask questions second.

You might think it's no big deal to share your wireless network with your neighbors. But that altruism can bite you in the butt when a less scrupulous neighbor, or a random stranger connects to the wireless network and uses it for illegal activity. As far as the authorities are concerned, that illegal activity originates from your wireless router, so you are the primary suspect.

Binary digitsLock down the bits and bytes on your Wi-Fi network or it might be used for illegal activity.

So, what happened? Well, this guy left his home Wi-Fi network unprotected, and a slimy neighbor piggy-backed on his "free" wireless network to access thousands of child pornography images. He's not the first to fall victim to this scenario, and, unfortunately, he won't be the last.

It is important that you lock your wireless network down. WEP (wired equivalent privacy) encryption has as many holes as Swiss cheese, and can be easily cracked in a matter of seconds, but even turning on such weak protection is better than nothing. If you scan any given neighborhood for wireless networks, you will find at least one that has no encryption turned on, and that low-hanging fruit is the network that will draw attention rather than a network that requires hacking to connect to.

But, to provide better security you should use WPA or WPA-2 encryption. With most home and SOHO (small office / home office) wireless routers, it is as simple as logging in to the Admin console, enabling the encryption, and setting a password. However, as this recent incident demonstrates, "simple" is relative, and enabling wireless encryption is easier said than done for many users.

The real answer, though, lies with the wireless router vendors. Unfortunately, convenience and simplicity trump security. Wi-Fi routers are designed to just work right out of the box. They live up to the claims in most cases--as long as your only concern is being able to connect to the wireless network and start surfing the Internet. But, if you also want your wireless network to be secure, they don't work so well out of the box after all.

Users who are not tech savvy, and want the convenience of a wireless router that "just works" are not likely to invest the time and effort to learn about the inner-workings of the router, or to understand and enable the security features. Wireless routers should be designed with encryption enabled by default, and part of the initial configuration should involve stepping the user through the process of establishing a unique SSID, and setting a secure password.

For now, though, that ball is in your court. Do yourself a favor and take the 15 minutes to figure out how to log into the admin console for your Wi-Fi router and turn on encryption to prevent unauthorized piggy-backing. If you don't, the next knock on your door might be the FBI--and they might not be there for pleasant chit-chat.

Reprinted with permission from PCWorld.com. Story copyright 2011 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.