I gave a speech to a local group yesterday and I received a question about Wi-Fi security, which prompted me to post the below excerpt from my book on that topic.

If you had  devised a technology that you wanted  to market on a mass scale to generate wide acceptance, would you call it “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence?”

How about something a little catchier? Maybe, “Wi-Fi?”

The term “Wi-Fi” was devised by a brand consulting firm and has been in use since about 1999. The term may have been a play on an older term, “hi-fi,” which was a shortened version of a term used to describe sound, “high fidelity.” The “wi” is short for wireless, but the “fi” in Wi-Fi does not stand for fidelity, or anything else for that matter.

Wi-Fi refers to a wireless network that uses radio waves to provide internet or network connections. You will find Wi-Fi almost everywhere that you go, and in your home too if you opt for this service.

Wi-Fi at home

If you have wireless internet at your home, then you are familiar with the convenience of being “unplugged” (as opposed to being “unglued” when the wireless internet doesn’t work like it’s supposed to). The wireless was so bad at my house a few years ago that my wife subjected herself to the agonizing pain of a call to the customer service department of our internet service provider (ISP). In general, our ISP has done an excellent job of taking “serve” out of the word “service.” If you do that, you’re not left with much of a word, or much service.

Our internet speeds were dreadfully slow, and my wife (MW) complained to the customer care representative (CCR) who was a big obnoxious jerk. He acted like it was our problem that their internet was slow. At one point the conversation between the BOJ and MW went like this:

MW: Our internet speed is very slow.

CCR: Are you going to cancel our service? MW: No.

CCR: Then I can’t help you.

MW: We just want the internet speeds that you promise in your ads.

CCR: The ad says, “up to.” You know what that means?

MW: I know what “up to” means, but we are not getting anything close to that and the internet keeps cutting out too. Is there anything you can do?

CCR: Actually, I can boost your speed from here. Stand by and I will do it for you.

CCR:  (10  minutes  later)  Okey  dokey,  you’re  all  set.  I boosted your speed.

By this time, MW knew something was up, so she called back and talked to another so called CCR, who told her that there was no way they could boost speed from their location. Shortly after, we got a new ISP. So far MW has not had to talk to any more CCRs, which is a good thing, if you like to remain sane.

As it pertains to security, the wonderful thing about a home Wi-Fi network is that you are in control of the security. Here are a few important things to do to make sure your home Wi-Fi network is secure, whether it is you that is setting it up or someone else.

Name your network

Give the network that you are going to use a name, so it is easy to find. You can name it anything that you want. I might name my network “Jeff’s home network.” It is fine to create a name like this, but know that your neighbors will be able to see that you have a network by this name. However, they won’t be able to get into it unless they have your password.

Create a strong password for your network

This is very important because it will ensure that anyone other than your authorized users (who know the password) will not be able to use your network. If a bad actor (a term the FBI likes to use to describe crooks, hackers, and spies) were to get into to your Wi-Fi network, anything they do online would appear as though it were coming from your Internet Protocol (IP) address. If it is criminal activity, you might be accused of their crimes. I’m not making this up, this has happened!

So, use the protocol discussed earlier when creating a strong password, that is, create a password of at least eight characters with the exclusions mentioned in chapter 9. When you set up the password, keep in mind that the software prompts and documentation may refer to the password as an “encryption key” or “pass-key.” These terms also refer to the password.

Create a guest account for visitors

If you plan on allowing guests in your home to use your Wi-Fi network, set up a separate network on your router for guests. Create a strong password for this network, but don’t use the same password as your home network. After your guest departs, you can change the password for the guest network to restrict any further access and keep the same password for your regular network.

Encrypt your network

Encrypting your network secures the communication from point to point. For example, the words you type in an email on your laptop are encrypted before they travel from your laptop to the Wi-Fi router.

There are three common encryption standards for Wi-Fi networks, referred to as WPA2, WPA, and WEP. Of the three, WPA2 is the most secure and should be the one that you use if you have a choice.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots

Public Wi-Fi networks, often referred to as “Wi-Fi hotspots,” have become a ubiquitous offering in retail establishments and other places we visit. Most coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, bars,

airports, hotels, etc., have a Wi-Fi network that has been set up for public use. Sometimes these networks require a password, but in other cases, you can access the network without one.

There are security concerns that you should be aware of when accessing public Wi-Fi networks. Mainly, these networks are not secure. With a little expertise, a person can see who is connected to the network and what they are doing on it. They might even trick you by setting up a lookalike network that people  may connect to instead of the merchant’s actual network.

Security cannot be guaranteed with public Wi-Fi hotspots, so here are two options that may help you be more secure.

A Virtual Private Network

You can have security in public hotspots by using a virtual private network (VPN). You need special software on your computer to use a VPN. There are many choices here. Most VPN software costs about $3-5 per month. The VPN software will create a secure tunnel between your computer and the websites that you are accessing, which will prevent eavesdropping.

Mobile Hotspot

Another secure way to access websites securely in a public area is to use your smartphone as a hotspot. Most newer model smartphones have this capability. You can connect to it by turning the hotspot on in your settings and then finding and connecting to that network on your computer. If you do that, you will be using the cellular network of your phone for internet access. This is generally more secure than the Wi-Fi hotspot. It may be slower or faster, depending on a few variables. Keep in mind, though, that it will use data on your cell phone plan. If you have a limited data plan that charges you per megabyte if you go over the limit, you could run up some big charges using this method for your internet access. In other words, don’t watch or download movies using your smartphone’s hotspot unless you have an unlimited data plan.

Security Tips for Wi-Fi hotspots:

  • Confirm the network name with the host or merchant before logging
  • Make sure no one is spying on you by watching as you type in your passwords to your operating system, email, or other
  • Don’t engage in financial transactions or any other sensitive transactions at a public

Physical Security

A word about physical security while in a hotspot location and while traveling to and from the location: never leave your devices unattended! It only takes a few seconds for a crook to walk away with your goods. This applies to your car as well. Don’t leave laptops or digital devices in plain view in a car, even for a short time. In many places, criminals wait in parking lots for a harried coffee drinker to run into a coffee shop and get their morning cup while leaving a laptop in plain view on the front seat. You might think a locked car is a deterrent, but this is not so, as a window can be broken in a second. Breaking windows to steal things is so common with crooks that there is a name for it: smash and grab. Don’t be a victim – keep your valuables out of plain view or carry them with you.