The Danger of Public WiFi: Is Your Home Wireless Network Private?

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Most discussions of staying safe online center around the websites that you visit, the software that you download and the people you trust with your personal information.  Obviously these are all important topics since the number of scams, viruses and data breaches that I talk about proves that there are a number of dangers online.  One danger that you might not consider could be a bigger risk than you think: the wireless connection you use to get online.

Stephanie Milan of Evansville, Indiana knows just how dangerous an unsecured public wireless signal can be.  She was sitting at home watching Food Network earlier this summer when the police came to her door.  They didn't knock politely or ask to speak with the teenager's parents... instead they busted the door open and lobbed a flashbang grenade into the house.  Someone had been making violent threats against the Evansville police department online and those threats had been traced back to the IP address of the Milan residence.  Someone had hijacked their unsecured wireless signal to make the threats without even having to set foot in the house.

This isn't an isolated case, either.  Unsecured wireless networks have led to a number of lawsuits and police raids in recent years, to the point that it is getting harder for the police to get warrants based on IP traces alone.  New York Magistrate Judge Gary Brown even included in a ruling that it was "no more likely that the subscriber to an IP address carried out a particular computer function...than to say an individual who pays the telephone bill made a specific telephone call."  He went on to point out that unless the router was secured with a password (and in some cases even if it was) then neighbors and random passersby could use the wireless signal to perform criminal actions that would then be traced back to that home. 

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that having someone use your Internet connection to commit a crime or download copyrighted materials isn't the only danger of having an unsecured wireless connection.  A hacker who gains access to your network can also access any files that you have shared on the network, and with a little bit of skill may even be able to access files that you haven't shared.  Every computer on the network could potentially be open to him, allowing the intruder to install keyloggers, search for files that contain sensitive personally identifying information, including; vital data, passwords, banking and financial information --and even use your computer as a tool to help them launch viruses and malware.

Securing a home wireless connection might sound complicated, but it doesn't have to be. You should log in to your router and check your wireless security settings. Be sure to choose your security type and create a strong password.  WPA2 security is your best bet if it's available on your router, though standard WPA will also work if you don't have WPA2.  Create a complex password containing mixed-case letters and numbers that don't describe anything in your home or in your life.  If you must create some sort of connection then do so in code, such as "IbaBNc4JU14k" if your way of remembering your password is saying "I bought a BRAND NEW car for JUST UNDER $14,000."  The longer and more complex your password is, the harder it will be to crack.

That's not your only option for staying safe online when it comes to threats over WiFi, either.

If you're willing to pay a little bit for extra security you can use a virtual private network option such as Private WiFi to encrypt your data on top of securing access to the network.  It's simple to install and you can try it for free for 3 days. Because the VPN isn't located in your home, there's no way that a hacker could gain access to it even if he managed to crack your network password.  It also has the benefit of being based on your computer and not your specific network, meaning that you can log in via your VPN when you're at Starbucks, an Internet café or any other location where you access the Internet without the security of your home router.

Stop and think about whether your network is really as secure as it could be, and if it's not whether there's a legitimate reason for it or if you've let security lapse in favor of convenience.If you don't take control of your network security, someone else will.  

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