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6 Steps To Protect Your Wireless Network

It doesn't take a lot of extra work or money to secure your network.

Got a wireless network at your small business? Odds are that it's not secure. That means it's wide open to hackers, war drivers, or anyone else passing by. But it doesn't take a lot of work or money to secure your network. These steps will go a long way toward keeping your network, PCs, and data safe.

Hide Your Network ID

Computers on your network connect in a kind of two-way conversation. Your network router constantly sends out its name, known as its SSID (service set identifier). Your wirelessly equipped PCs see that SSID, then connect to the router by using the SSID name. If someone knows your SSID, it makes it easier to connect to your router.

When you buy a wireless router, it comes with a default SSID that's the same for the thousands, or millions, of routers the manufacturer makes. A would-be intruder can search for networks with a few common default SSIDs from the major manufacturers and quickly find wireless networks.

A good line of defense is to change your network's SSID from the default to a unique name. By itself, this isn't a great defense, because most war-driving software will automatically find the SSIDs of any nearby networks. Windows XP will automatically do the same thing. You also need to tell your network to stop broadcasting its SSID.

The steps you take to change the SSID and tell your router not to broadcast it vary from router maker to router maker. In the Linksys WRT54GX4, log on to your administrator screen and click the Wireless link. In the Wireless Network Name (SSID) box, type in a new name for your router. In the Wireless SSID Broadcast box, click Disable. Then click Save Settings.

Your router is now invisible to passers-by, but it's also invisible to your own PCs on the network. You need to tell them to use the new SSID. On each PC, in Windows XP SP2, click the small wireless icon in the Windows System Tray and click the View Wireless Networks button. Click the "Change advanced settings" link in the left-hand column and then click the Wireless Networks tab. Click the Add button in the "Preferred network" section, type your new network name, click OK, and then click OK again. You'll then be connected to your network.

Use Encryption

Encryption won't let people onto your network if they don't have the key, and anyone who tries to sniff out network activity will see only garbled, meaningless characters.

There are two encryption standards you can use: Wireless Equivalent Protocol and Wi-Fi Protected Access. WEP is older and less secure than WPA, so your best bet is to use WPA. But even WEP is probably enough. It's not likely that intruders or snoopers will spend large amounts of time and energy trying to break your encryption, even if it's as weak as WEP. You mainly want to use encryption to protect your network against passers-by and war drivers looking to make a little mischief.

How you set up WPA differs according to your router. In a Linksys WRT54GX4, log on to your router administrator screen, click the Wireless link, then click Wireless Security. Choose your encryption method from the drop-down list, type in an encryption key, and write it on a slip of paper, because you'll need to use it at each PC. Click Save Settings.

After this, you'll have to set up encryption on each of your PCs using the same key you used in the router. In XP, on each PC, click the wireless connection icon in the System Tray and click the Properties button. Click the Wireless Networks tab, highlight your network, click the Properties button, and then click the Association tab. In the Network Authentication drop-down box, select your encryption method. In the "Data encryption" dialog box, choose TKIP. Next, uncheck the "The key is provided for me automatically" box. Enter your WPA key in the "Network key" box, and type it again in the "Confirm network key" box. Click OK, then OK again. The PC now can connect to your network using WPA.

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