Are you naked? (Your WiFi network, that is)

WiFi exploded on to the scene in July of 1999 when Apple introduced the “Airport” 802.11b WiFi products, at an unheard of price point ($299) and a nice user interface allowing normal humans (i.e., non-propellerheads) to get the thing configured and operable.

Over the next several years, growth of wireless devices accelerated in to the tens of millions of units. Virtually everyone I know — when we discuss having a home wireless network — always talks about how delightful it is to be laying in bed with their laptop, on the sofa, the deck, or wherever they happen to be.

But there’s a dark side.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve been somewhere with my PC laptop (and run NetStumbler) or my Powerbook (running MacStumbler) and discovered the volume of WiFi networks that are *wide open* (meaning someone plugged them in with the factory defaults and didn’t bother or didn’t know how to set a password). Couple that with the fact that alot of these same people don’t have a firewall running on their computers, and this is like leaving your front door open when you’re gone for the evening.

I’m secure. I have buddies who give me a bad time about it though since I have WiFi Protected Access (WPA), my SSID not being broadcast so my network is ‘invisible’, and the MAC addresses from the specific computers I want to allow on my network entered in my systems so I block others. They think I’m “over-secured.”

Security is an issue other than just at home…but it’s an underreported problem in internet cafes or public places that leave their networks wide open so it’s easy to get on them. Without a company Virtual Private Network (VPN) for your personal laptop, or some way to create a Secure Shell (SSH) to another computer for a secure tunnel, you’re vulnerable to prying eyes (email passwords go in the clear, etc.). Providers of WiFi access (like TMobile) are adding robust security options to eliminate this threat, but not all.

The punchline? Set your firewall, password protect your home wireless network, and choose a provider that offers access software with built-in security.

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