Wireless Internet Safety

What is wireless Internet?

New Internet networking technologies have made it possible to connect to the Internet via short-range radio waves. This is extremely convenient, in that it allows you to connect a laptop or other mobile device to the Internet at home without the need for plugging in a messy tangle of cables. It also means that you can connect to the Internet in other places that have wireless modems, so you can take the Internet pretty much anywhere you go!

Is wireless Internet safe?

However, wireless Internet comes with its own set of dangers. Some troublemakers may piggyback off of the wireless networks of others, using them to freely do things on the Internet that take up lots of data (such as watching several long videos or downloading numerous large computer files). Then the unfortunate victim gets stuck with a big monthly Internet bill for going over their data limit. Others can use this trick to monitor what other people do on the Internet, or even do this by setting up their own fake wireless networks and tricking people into connecting to them.

Fortunately, there are precautions that you can take to keep your wireless Internet secure at home, as well as to stay safe when using public wireless Internet when on the go. Here are some suggestions for how to stay safe while using wireless Internet, or "Wi-Fi" as it is sometimes called.

4 wireless Internet safety tips

1. Take regular precautions for protecting your computer or mobile device.

The number one tip we can give you for staying safe while using wireless Internet is to remember that many of its security threats are the same as when using the Internet in general. This means that you should have good antivirus software installed on your computer or mobile device, and maybe also have your computer files backed up someplace safe (like an external hard drive or a cloud storage system). In addition, if you have set up your computer to be able to share access to files or printers over a local network (which you probably haven't, but still), then you should probably disable these features (ask a trusted friend or family member who knows how to do this if you need help).

2. If you use a wireless modem at home, take steps to secure it.

There are certain things that you can do to keep troublemakers from using your wireless Internet at home. One of the most basic is to use a password to lock access to your connection. This means that only people who know the password will be able to connect to your wireless network and/or see what you do over it. Two of the most common types of passwords are called Wired Equivalent Protection (W.E.P.) or Wi-Fi Protected Access (W.P.A. or W.P.A.2). You should use a WEP password at the very least, but if you can, use a WPA/WPA2 password; the latter is more secure because it's more difficult to crack.

There are also some advanced things that you can do to keep your home wireless Internet safe. For example, you may be able to keep your wireless network from showing up as an option on other people's computers by purposely lowering its signal strength, or hiding or changing its service set identifier (S.S.I.D.). This means that only people close enough to your home and who already know the name of your wireless Internet network can connect to it. You may also be able to filter out the media access control (M.A.C.) addresses of certain computers, so that they will be denied access to your wireless Internet.

Some of these solutions are a bit technical and may vary in how to implement them, depending on what brand of modem you use and what company provides your Internet connection. Therefore, you might want to contact your Internet service provider — or at least a tech-savvy friend or family member whom you can trust — and ask them to walk you through setting some of these things up.

3. When connecting to public Wi-Fi, make sure that you connect to the right network.

There are two ways to make sure that you connect to the right public wireless Internet network when you're away from home with your laptop or mobile device. The first is to disable your computer's ability to automatically connect to available open wireless networks (if you need help, ask a friend or someone from your family whom you trust and who knows about these kinds of things). This feature is sometimes useful, in that it allows you to connect to certain wireless networks that you use all the time without having to enter a password every single time. However, it can also cause you to accidentally connect to fake wireless networks that criminals can use to spy on and/or manipulate your Internet activity.

The second is to ask the owner of the establishment you're at which wireless network is the correct one to connect to (if there are multiple available options at a certain place). This can prevent you from accidentally connect to a fake wireless network set up by a cyber-criminal. Certain establishments, such as hotels, may protect their wireless Internet with a password, and even charge money for it. Usually, these measures will make it more trouble than it's worth for cyber-criminals to spy on or do other nasty things to people over these types of wireless Internet networks. This can allow you to conduct more sensitive Internet activities over these networks, such as banking, shopping, or other confidential business work.

4. Don't conduct overly-private activities when using public Wi-Fi.

One thing to remember while using public wireless Internet connections is that, in the interest of serving as many people as possible, they are almost always less secure than your wireless Internet connection at home might be. For this reason, it's probably not a good idea to do banking or other administrative work over public Wi-Fi. You never know who might be connected to an open wireless network for the sole purpose of eavesdropping on what other people on the network are doing. And, of course, they could simply be discreetly looking over your shoulder instead. So save that kind of stuff for the privacy of your own home, or use a more secure wireless network (see above tip).

Wireless Internet is convenient, and is becoming the norm as more powerful Internet-capable mobile devices are seeing widespread use in everyday life. But there are additional risks involved with using it, due to the fact that it's significantly easier to hijack a broadcast radio signal (or use it as a hijacking tool) than a signal coming through a point-to-point cable connection. By following these tips, though, you'll be able to keep your computer and home wireless Internet network safe, and not risk your personal information when you're using wireless Internet out in public.