by Jeff Smith
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!
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