Unsecured wireless networks can hemorrhage personal and business data and even create far-reaching legal issues

Once upon a time, owning electronic equipment also meant owning a plethora of cables – it was an accepted drawback of the emerging information age. Even television sets were controlled through cables – anyone remember the Zenith ‘Lazy Bones’ system – and the concept of controlling devices without wires was the stuff of Science Fiction.

Fast-forward to today where the idea of being attached by an umbilical cord as you go about your daily business seems almost inconceivable. There are countless different wireless technologies available to enable a wire-free existence and wireless has even gone as far as being able to charge your mobile devices cable free. A few examples of the current protocols are highlighted below:

  • Wi-Fi – often synonymous with the term wireless. This allows computers to communicate using radio waves. The technology is most commonly used for local wireless networks to allow devices like computers, tablets and phones to connect to an access point.
  • Bluetooth – a wireless technology used to transfer data over short distances, frequently used in small consumer devices that connect to phones, tablets and accessories such as headsets and speaker systems.
  • Zigbee – a suite of communication protocols used for low power personal area networks, often in home-automation. It is suited for low-bandwidth needs and designed for use with small, low-power digital radios, such as for industrial controls and wireless sensors.

The Internet of Things                                                

All of these technologies are part of the surge of “connected” devices in the new realm of IoT (Internet of Things). Analyst firm Gartner says that there are 6 billion connected devices in use today, but by 2020 they predict that number will be over 21 billion. This IoT concept refers to the interconnection of everyday objects with embedded computers enabling them to send and receive data. This includes everything from mobile phones, fridge freezers, washing machines, utility meters and even wearable devices. To help with the flexibility of installation, the technologies used to communicate are most often wireless.

Common Issues

Wireless communications are not without problems however. Especially when talking about devices that rely on radio waves. Each wireless device that sends out a radio signal adds noise to the electromagnetic spectrum. This noise causes interference to other neighboring devices. The more devices in the area, the more interference there will be. This can get so problematic that communications drop out, often resulting in users complaining to network managers of poor service. The emergence of the IoT and increasing reliance on mobile devices will only increase the strain on the available spectrum.

The fact that users can easily connect to networks without a physical connection is also a double-edged sword as it can also allow unauthorized users to piggyback onto unsecured networks. The damage caused by unauthorized users can range from something as trivial as reduced speed due to bandwidth sharing, to something as serious as cyber criminals hiding behind your IP address to conduct illicit activities – resulting in a knock on your door from the authorities. Unauthorized users could even gain access to the personal files on your computer once they have access to the network.

How to Secure Your Network

Thankfully there are a few easy steps you can undertake to protect your wireless network:

  • Change the administrator username and password – the default settings for wireless routers are often widely publicised. Once access has been gained to the network it is extremely easy for the user to access the router’s configuration.
  • Change your Network’s SSID name. Many users leave the SSID as standard, this often has the model number in the SSID name – making it easy to identify your equipment and conduct a quick web search for the default username and password. Some poorly designed wireless access points even have the password as part of the SSID.
  • Upgrade your Router’s firmware. Hackers are constantly trying to find weaknesses in wireless access points. Once these security flaws have been discovered, manufacturers often release new versions of firmware to counteract the weakness. It is highly recommended to ensure that your equipment is on the latest recommended version of firmware.
  • Turn down the transmit power. Doing this will reduce the range of the wireless signal. This means that a potential hacker must be closer to your property to gain access to the signal. A potential hacker using an upgraded antenna can negate this, but there are still limitations even with the best antenna available.
  • Turn on the built-in Firewall. Routers generally have a built-in firewall that should protect your network against attacks. You must ensure that this is activated, as it is a feature that is often left off by default. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to turn on the firewall.
  • Add a software-based firewall to end points. Ensure that any computer connecting within your wireless network has a software based firewall turned on and is configured correctly. This adds an extra layer of defence – preventing access from compromised devices within your network.

Finally, add antivirus and to all your computers. For businesses, having solid firewall and end point solutions is now the norm, not the exception.  Keeping potential hackers from gaining access to your network is futile if the computers are susceptible to being infected with viruses. Some viruses are designed to open an encrypted connection to the outside world. This allows hackers to penetrate your perimeter defenses and access your computer. From there they have access to all the files on the infected machine. They can then attempt to gain access to any other device connected to your network. To reduce the risk of this you must ensure any computers connected to your network are running the latest antivirus software.

Ultimately the best offense is a good defense when it comes to protecting yourself and living with confidence. If you aren’t comfortable with the technology and nuances to ensure you and/or your business is protected, seek help. The cost of implementing proper protection is minimal when set against any potential loss of critical information.