Back to Basics: Safer, Smarter Surfing 2

06 October 2008, by A. Cedilla

Part 2 of 2

In the previous installment, I covered the basics of protective measures against viruses, and malware (malicious software). Here we”ll deal with wireless surfing issues.

Wireless networks are here to stay; you can find them almost everywhere. The ability to check your email or get some work finished while sunning on the beach, waiting at the airport, or lounging in the park is appealing to us all.

Unfortunately, many, or even most, wireless units don’t come with security features turned on. This may not seem like a big issue if you’re simply setting up a home network, but there are a number of potential problems you should consider.

The most serious problem is the increase in identity theft. If your network is unsecured, the personal data on your wireless electronic equipment is also unsecured. The order you just placed for a book at Amazon may have given your contact and payment information to an unscrupulous hacker.

Nearly every town in which “WiFi” is common will have “war drivers” and “warXers” at work. These are people who walk or drive around town with wireless equipment, searching for unsecured networks.
Not all “War Drivers” are hackers, of course. Many may just want to leech off your network for free, but the risk is high if you don’t learn how to protect yourself. You can usually find quite a bit of free information as to how to secure your network at the website of your router’s manufacturer, or by doing a search in a search engine for a phrase like “secure home wireless.”

Beyond the truly malicious, there are also your neighbors who may find your network by accident and enjoy nosing into your activities and using your Internet access at will, slowing down your network speed in the process.

Even many businesses use cheap, home-use quality equipment for their company networks. With the poor security often found on small business networks, anyone with a basic knowledge of wireless can access sensitive company and customer data.

If you are unable to secure your network yourself, there are many service companies who will do it for you. A search of your local yellow pages or an inquiry at your neighborhood computer store should yield professional help and get your private data private again.

A few tips for safer WiFi surfing while using Windows OS (2000 and XP)

Most laptops that run Microsoft Windows are set up by default to search for and connect to any available wireless network. That makes them as friendly and as defenseless as golden retriever puppies, willing to roll over for a belly rub from any stranger.

To turn off ad-hoc mode in Windows:

  1. In the Network Connections menu, click “Wireless Network Connection.”
  2. Click “change the settings of this connection.”
  3. Wait for the Windows Network Connection Properties window to open.
  4. Click the tab that says “Wireless Networks.”
  5. In that tab, click “Advanced.”
  6. In the “Advanced” window, click “Access point (infrastructure) networks only.
  7. Uncheck “Automatically connect to non-preferred networks.”

To turn off file sharing (which is almost always, by default, on):

  1. On the Start menu, select Settings.
  2. Select Network Connections.
  3. Find the Internet connection and right-click to select Properties.
  4. Find the General tab. If there’s a check mark next to File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks, click to uncheck it.

Again, going back to our condom analogy in part 1, prevention is better than cure. Ever had to reformat an infected hard drive?

If you don’t need the radio, turn it off. Disabling ad-hoc networking is one way of many to stop a computer from indiscriminately hooking-up with some random wireless network. Here’s how to turn the radio off in Windows:

  1. Right-click on the wireless network icon in the right-hand corner of the screen.
  2. Click disable.

You need to take special care in turning the radio off, especially if you’ve just come into the office from doing work wirelessly outside. This applies to laptops and any other WiFi enabled doodad. Any equipment with WiFi radio can find WiFi networks outside your office. You may become an unsuspecting Trojan horse by bringing in a live radio connection to work with you. Once you”re inside, that live connection can open a door into your corporate network, compromising security.

Use encryption. You can’t be sure all the hotspots out there use the same safety precautions you do. If you’re a business traveler carrying sensitive information, it pays to keep that data protected from unauthorized snooping.

To encrypt a folder in Windows XP:

  1. Open Windows Explorer
  2. Right-click the file or folder that you want to encrypt, and then click Properties.
  3. On the General tab, click Advanced.
  4. Check the box that says, “Encrypt contents to secure data check.”

As always, keep updated about the latest events and news on computing and safer practices.

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