Monday, October 29, 2007

SSC #42 Wireless Security

by Jeff Smith

Wireless Security

   If you use a wireless router in your home, you are essentially broadcasting your internet access in a rough sphere around your WiFi router.  Any computer with the proper equipment (a compatible wireless card) that is within that sphere can pick up the signal and use your internet.  That is, of course, unless you use encryption.
    Wireless encryption is reminiscent of scrambled World War II military radio messages. You need a certain code or key in order to decipher the message.  Thats what is going on here as well, the only difference is that the messages are coming many thousands of times per second, and what is being carried is your internet.
    While there are several types of encryption, what you're likely to be dealing with comes in two main flavors. 
    WEP is an older standard that is the most common.  WEP stands for Wireless Equivalent Privacy.  And for most uses it is fine.  Unless you're living next to Jack Bauer or someone on his team, your network is likely safe.  But still, it has a bad reputation because it can be cracked.  The key to the network is scrambled and broadcast along with the signal.  This "leak" makes it possible that your network could be accessed by unwanted parties, who would then have access to any files you have shared across your network, as well as the ability to download whatever they want across your registered IP address. 
    WPA was created to address the security weaknesses of WEP.  This newer standard allows you to broadcast your network without fear of being hacked into.  If you have sensitive data on your network, WPA is for you.  But keep in mind that it isn't supported on all routers, and its a little tricker to set up.

    I also must mention that keeping your network open, meaning without encryption, is not a bad option if you live far away from neighbors who might "borrow" some of your internet bandwidth.  It certainly makes setting up computers a lot easier.  And in some countries it has been successfully used as a defense in filesharing lawsuits, simply because there is no way of proving who downloaded what on an open network.  I think there's a government term for this... ah yes, plausible deniability.

    There is also a company called FON, which has a network of shared WiFi access.  Meaning simply that you share your wifi with other FON users, and likewise, whenever you are roaming around with your laptop and you happen across another FON network, you can access it for free!  This is a pretty cool thing, but keep in mind that you might open up the door one morning to find some stranger checking his email on your lawn.   FON has special routers for this though, that will allow you to have both an Open and Secured network running simultaneously.  Other FON users access the Open part, and you and your machines use the Secured.  This keeps strangers from accessing your shared files.
    FON is used a lot heavier in Britain than the US, so if you're planning a vacation to see Big Ben, you may wanna sign up before you go.

    Next week I'll be discussing the controversy over health risks associated with all this wireless gadgetry.

See ya then!


Do You Yahoo!?
Tired of spam? Yahoo! Mail has the best spam protection around

Monday, October 15, 2007

SSC #41 Wireless for beginners

by Jeff Smith

So you need to connect 2 or more computers in your house, but they're not in the same room, and you don't want to run cables all through the house, or drill holes in your walls... you need wireless networking.

Wireless networking doesn't have to be hard, and for Windows users it generally isn't. But there are some things to keep in mind.

First off, sharing a dial-up connection is pointless and will only give you frustration, so I wouldn't recommend it, while you may get it to work, dial-up is notoriously slow on ONE computer, imagine how slow it will crawl when you divide that connection in half!

There are many different kinds of wireless. Aside from infrared, and Bluetooth, or cellphone based wireless connections, there's the common wireless networking protocols 802.11something, which is what we'll be covering today.

I say "something" because theres lots of things that can go on the end of 802.11. There's A B D G and soon to be N. B and G are compatible together, whereas A routers connect only to A cards and the case is the same with D. 802.11N is a new standard that is due out soon, which is expected to be backwards compatible with B and G as well. On the equipment you buy, it may not say 802.11g, it may instead say Wireless-G (or B... you get the picture) Don't worry, its the same thing. Marketing departments just feel that letters are less scary to consumers than numbers are.

To network your broadband around the house, you're going to need a wireless router. These come in varying shapes and sizes, and a wide range of prices. Being the spendthrift (ladies, you would call it cheapskate) that I am, I've only used the less costly equipment. So I can't really tell you if spending more money makes a big difference.

Some routers are more easily configured than others. Generally, LinkSys makes some good ones that are easy to set up. D-Link are pretty good as well. I've had some problems with Belkin, and their tech support is horrid, but thats just my own personal experiences. You yourself may enjoy talking to people who barely know english. Personally, I don't. For Linux users, you won't be able to just put in the "Easy Install Disk" that comes with these routers, you'll have to configure them yourself. Its really not THAT hard, you might just have to submit to learning something new, which never hurts... too much.

Ok, so you got your wifi router, whats next? If one of your machines is near your router, you should just be able to plug it in via ethernet cable. Cool, you're halfway there. Now for the other machine, you'll need to get a wireless card. These come in many forms. If you have a desktop system, you can get a PCI wireless card, but you'll have to open up your case to install it.

Or the easy way out is to get a USB wireless card. This will work in any computer with an unused USB slot. This is what I recommend for those of you who aren't quite brave enough to venture inside your computer tower.
If you're on a laptop, you can get a PCMCIA wireless card that will slide right in the cardslot, but chances are if you have a fairly new laptop, it will have a wireless receiver built into it. Just make sure you know what type (A B D G) that it has inside before purchasing your wifi router. USB wifi cards will work for laptops too, but you may find them to be a bit unwieldy as they usually have a 6 ft cord on them.

You must understand going into this that you will NEVER get the advertised range out of these things without modifying them. Those ranges are based on some theoretical perfect situation that is unlikely to happen in your house (or mine).

Effective signal range can be shortened by just about any obstacle, like thick walls, furniture, or extremely lazy pets that won't move. If you think you're going to have a range problem, look into getting a wireless router with removable antennas. This will enable you to upgrade the antenna to one that will throw out the signal a little better. Adjusting antennas trying to get a stronger signal will likely remind you of the days before cable TV when you had to work the rabbit ears just right so you could watch Mork and Mindy without snow in the picture.

If you're a tinkerer, like me, its pretty easy to make a homemade directional antenna from a large coffee can, but while that gets the job done, and done well, it isn't likely to color coordinate with your wife's idea of taste.
Another inexpensive way to boost your signal a bit is to make a reflector shield out of aluminum foil. Though you're probably not going to see a really huge difference, its a good cheap way to boost a weak signal.

For the advanced-geek, you can REALLY increase your wifi router's range (5 to 10 miles line of sight) by jacking in to a modified Primestar dish!

Personally, I'll be keeping my eye out for any derelict dishes that I can pick up on the cheap! Who knows? Maybe I'll mount one on my car. While the increased wind resistance is sure to hit me in the gas tank, on the other hand, it will likely be so tacky that my wife will refuse to drive it... and that will save me some gallons in the long run. (but honey, it can pick up our wireless network from the Tennessee!) Do you think she'll go for that??

Me neither. :(

I'll continue next week by following up with the pros and cons of wireless security.

For more 802.11something information, check out

Ubuntu 7.10 Gutsy Gibbon is OUT! To request a free copy, go to
or for more info, go to

See you next time!


Saturday, October 6, 2007

SSC #40 General news

by Jeff Smith

    Sorry about last week folks, I missed my deadline.  Did ya miss me?

    There's lots going on lately that may be of interest to you.  If you recall, awhile back I wrote about Dell making the uber-smart decision to start selling PCs pre-loaded with Ubuntu Linux.  Well it seems that having this powerhouse seller on the Linux team has really turned some heads.  Perhaps you recall me complaining about ATI's driver support for Linux?  Well, they are still a little shoddy on their support for their older cards, but they've recently committed themselves to providing open source hardware specifications for their newer graphics cards.  In fact, a new driver set has already been released.  Who knows? Perhaps they read my article!  Or maybe it has something to do with Dell saying that they wouldn't be buying from hardware manufacturers that didn't support open source drivers.  Hmmm... nah, it was definitely the article.
    What this means to Linux users is that there are now three different graphics card makers (ATI, Nvidia, Intel) who are committed to competing for your graphics card slot.  And competition isn't a bad thing at all.  Now, perhaps if I write a scathing article about Wireless card makers...
    Another big thing that is happening shortly is that Ubuntu is about to release their next version,  Ubuntu 7.10, codenamed Gutsy Gibbon.  This new version promises to have a lot of new features for those of you with Linux compatible accelerated graphics cards.  If you wanna see what I'm talking about, go to and search for Compiz Fusion.  Yeah, its just that cool. 
    Ubuntu releases a new version about every 6 months.  In fact, 7.10 means 2007, 10th month (October).  With each new version, the code names go up a letter.  The earliest I'm familiar with was 6.04 Dapper Drake, and 6.10 Edgy Eft after it.  I'm currently writing on 7.04 Feisty Fawn.  After Gutsy Gibbon, the next version will be 8.04 Hardy Heron.  Personally I was hoping they'd call it Hungry Hippo, but you can't have everything.   
    Of course, updating to a new operating system every 6 months would be a real pain in the rear, except that it really isn't.  Starting with Feisty, they've made it so that you can just update your existing Ubuntu installation to the newest version quite easily.  No need to re-install, and all your personal files stay put!  Now isn't that thoughtful? 
    If you've bought a new computer recently, you're likely dealing with learning a whole new operating system... Microsoft Vista.  While Vista has a slew of exciting new features, many users are expressly not happy with it, claiming that it is so bloated that it makes their brand new systems seem sluggish.  So many have complained, in fact, that a few of the bigger PC companies have quietly begun to offer" downgrade" disks that will let you replace Vista with Windows XP.  So if you're struggling with Vista, or you're aggravated that your high powered new PC doesn't feel too high powered, you should contact your PC's maker and see if they offer a downgrade. 
    But getting away from computer geekdom for a moment, the thing that I am definitely MOST excited about is the new Radiohead album coming out on October 10th. 
    I'm really excited by this for many reasons, not least of all being that I'm a HUGE fan.  But even better, currently Radiohead is without a label.  They are not under contract to any music companies.  Of course, being a world-class band, they would have no problems finding a new contract if they wanted to, but they've instead opted on a new way to do things.
    Starting October 10th, they're going to let their fans decide on how much they want to pay for downloads of the album.  If you only want to pay a penny, you only pay a penny.  For the true fan, there's also a boxed set priced at around $80 that includes two vinyl records, two cd's and various artwork and fan pleasing items. 
    So, you say, this band is giving away their music, so what?  Well, when you look at the fact that the RIAA (Recording Industries of America Association) just won a lawsuit against a private citizen for over $200,000.00, and you realize that most of today's music is more about monetary notes than musical notes, it is really refreshing to see a band (my fave band) taking the "industry" out of the music industry.
    So, even if you're not a fan... even if you have never heard Radiohead before in your life, I urge you to go to and download the new album and give it a listen.  And while you do that, keep in mind that what you're hearing is the sound of change.

Next week I begin discussing wireless networking!


Building a website is a piece of cake.
Yahoo! Small Business gives you all the tools to get online.

Vote for my Ubuntu Brainstorm Idea!!!

Do you think it would be a great idea to have a specific version of Ubuntu designed for kids and parents? Filled with fun games and parental control features to keep your little ones safe? Join Ubuntu Brainstorm and vote!