Wireless: Hot Spot Safety Tips

By | Mar.15.11 | Daily Dispatch, Legal Technology

Are you still using the default security settings on your laptop or wireless device? Relying on unsecured wireless settings in cafes, airports and hotel lobbies? If you just said, “What security settings?” then you’d better read this before you sit down with that Starbucks latte, open up your browser and click Connect again.

Most of us just leave the settings alone when we get a new device, thinking we’re good to go. Unfortunately, that’s rarely true. To make it easy to set up your network, most Wi-Fi equipment is shipped with security disabled and the default network name (SSID) and administrative credentials (username and password) left in place. This makes configuration as simple as possible—and we like simple—but it also makes you extremely vulnerable.

Public Wi-Fi is a great convenience but it’s like dialing into radio waves. If someone has the right equipment, they can hear the music or, in this case, peruse your personal data. You want to change those default settings on your wireless device as soon as you set up your network.

How to Button Up Security at Public Wi-Fi Hot Spots

Even if your device is a newer one, with the white-and-black logo on the box that says “Wi-Fi Protected SETUP,” you should still double-check to make sure it’s safe. The same goes for the rest of us who threw away the box long ago: Double-check your security settings on any existing network. Here’s how:

  1. Ensure that your network is configured for WPA2 instead of the older WEP or WPA security protocol. WPA2 has been required on all Wi-Fi certified products since 2006 and the majority of Wi-Fi certified devices in service today are capable of WPA2.
  2. Get a secure network passphrase. The Wi-Fi Alliance recommends that your passphrase be at least eight characters long and include a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters and symbols. But many experts now recommend 12 characters. Stay away from a passphrase that contains a word that is found in the dictionary or can be figured out from your personal information. Change the passphrase every six to eight weeks.
  3. Configure your device to request approval before automatically connecting. This will give you greater control over your connections. A scary truth about your cool Wi-Fi device: The default setting requires it to sense and automatically connect to any available wireless signal without your involvement. Think of that!
  4. Avoid sharing. Your Wi-Fi device may be set to automatically enable sharing or connecting with other devices when attaching it to a wireless network. This may be handy for you to access the printer down the hall at work or at home, but it’s downright dangerous in a public network such as Starbucks, the airport or in your hotel lobby.
  5. Consider a data encrypter. WPA2 encryption protects your data while in the air, assuming the hot spot doesn’t have any corruption. If you are concerned, get a data encrypter that resides on your device and encrypts data as it passes through the free Wi-Fi hot spot.

Here’s to a safer Wi-Fi experience with that latte!

Next week: A look at wireless network security at home.

Sheila M. Blackford is an attorney and Practice Management Advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund. She writes the Just Oregon Lawyers Blog.

Illustration © Image Zoo.

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