The ethics of wireless networking

Many of us have, at some point, logged-on to an unsecured wireless network in the hope of being able to access the Internet for free. Usually, we do it when we are desperate, such as when we're staying at a hotel and don't want to pay hourly fees, or when we've moved to a new dwelling and we don't have any other alternative.

As experienced and non-malicious Internet users, what rules should we follow when we see an unsecured residential wireless network? Should we ignore it? Log-on and browse, but don't download any big files or view any unsuitable material? Log-on and change the SSID to inform the owner that their security is non-existent and that they should change this? What would you do? I know I'm guilty of hopping on to unsecured networks when I've been desperate for Web access, and I have felt bad about it because not everyone knows exactly how to configure their routers, and most routers don't prompt you to enable wireless security as part of their set-up routine.

So for all of you out there who have an unsecured wireless router, for whatever reason, it's in your best interest to secure it. First things first: enable encryption. Use WPA or WPA2 (as long as your computers and other network devices support it) and choose a pass-phrase that you are confident no one will be able to guess. In fact, this is pretty much the only thing you need to do.

Other steps you can take to make your network even more secure are as follows: you can hide your SSID (the name of your network), enable MAC address filtering so that only computers whose MAC address you authorise will be able to access the network, and you can disable the DHCP server so that your router does not automatically give an IP address to any computers that connect to your router. Of course, if you disable DHCP, then you will have to give your computers and network devices their own specific IP address, and also put in a manual gateway and DNS address.

If your wireless gear supports WiFi Protected Setup (WPS), then you can implement security by using this feature. It's meant to make things easier when it comes to securing a wireless network, but we still think that knowing how to enable encryption manually is better than relying on WPS. Anyway, with WPS you can either press a physical button or enable a software feature, which will poll the devices on your network and give them the required encryption level and key for your network automatically. It's a feature that's available on many new networking devices, but not on older ones.

In fact, one of the reasons some networks are unsecured might be due to the owner having older network devices that only support low-level WEP keys. These can be a pain to set up as they may require you to use a hexadecimal number rather than a pass-phrase. Still, it is better to implement the any level of security rather than no security, even if it is hard to set up.

By following these steps, you should be able to secure your wireless router so that your neighbours can't access it, and it's not only important so that your Internet data quota isn't chewed up by strangers, but also so that no one can access any shared files on your local area network.

What would you do if you find, or what have you done in the past if you've found, an insecure Wi-Fi network?

a) log-on and use the free Internet connection sensibly?

b) log-on and leech to your heart's content?

c) log-on and leave a message for the user to change their security settings

Drop me a line at elias_plastiras at idg.com.au or leave a comment below.

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Elias Plastiras
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