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How to Encrypt Your Wireless Network

and why you need to

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How to Encrypt Your Wireless Network
Photo: Peter Dazeley / Getty

If you have Cable, DSL, or some other form of high-speed Internet, chances are, you've purchased a wireless-capable router so that you can connect to the Internet via your notebook PC, smartphone, or any other wireless-enabled device you have in your home.

Many of you out there may be using a wireless router that is 5 years old or more. These devices tend to be set up and forgotten for the most part. Once it's set up, it just sort of does its thing, save for the occasional glitch that requires you to reboot it.

When you first set up your wireless router did you turn on encryption so that a password was required to access your wireless network? Maybe you did, maybe you didn't.

Here's a quick way to find out if your wireless network is using encryption:

1. Open your smartphone's wireless network settings (check your smartphone's help manual for details).

2. Look for your wireless network's SSID (network name) in the list of available networks.

3. Check to see if your wireless network has a padlock icon next to it, if it does, then you are using at least basic encryption. Although you may have encryption turned on, you may be using an outdated and easily-hacked form of wireless encryption so keep reading.

4. Check to see if your wireless network configuration tells you what type of wireless security is being used to protect your network. You will likely see either "WEP", "WPA", "WPA2", or something similar.

If you see anything besides WPA2, you will need to change the encryption settings on your wireless router or possibly upgrade its firmware, or buy a new wireless router if your current one is too old to support an upgrade to WPA2.

Why You Need Encryption and Why WEP Encryption is Weak

If your wireless network is wide open with no encryption enabled, you are practically inviting neighbors and other freeloaders to steal the bandwidth that you're paying good money for. Maybe you're the generous type, but if you are experiencing slow Internet speeds, it might be because you have a bunch of folks leeching off your wireless network.

Just a few years ago, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) was the standard for securing wireless networks. WEP was eventually cracked and is now easily bypassed by even the most novice hacker thanks to cracking tools available on the Internet. After WEP came Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA too had flaws and was replaced by WPA2. WPA2 isn't perfect, but it is currently the best available offering for protecting home-based wireless networks.

If you set up your Wi-Fi router many years ago then you could be using one of the old hackable encryption schemes such as WEP. You should consider changing to WPA2.

How do I Enable WPA2 Encryption on my Wireless Router?

1. Log into your wireless router's administrator console. This is usually done by opening a browser window and typing in the address of your wireless router (usually http://192.168.0.1, http://192.168.1.1, http://10.0.0.1, or something similar). You will then be prompted for the admin name and password. If you don't know any of this information check the wireless router manufacturer's website for help.

2. Locate the "Wireless Security" or "Wireless Network" settings page.

3. Look for the Wireless Encryption Type setting and change it to WPA2-PSK (you may see a WPA2-Enterprise settings. The enterprise version of WPA2 is intended more for corporate-type environments and requires a much more complicated set up process).

If you don't see WPA2 as an option, then you may have to either upgrade your wireless router's firmware to add the capability (check your router manufacturer's website for details) or, if your router is too old to be upgraded via firmware, you may have to purchase a new wireless router that supports WPA2.

4. Create a strong wireless network name (SSID) coupled with a strong wireless network password (Pre-shared Key).

5. Click "Save" and "Apply". The wireless router may have to reboot for the settings to take effect.

6. Reconnect all your wireless devices by selecting the wireless network name and entering in the new password on each device.

You should periodically check your router manufacturer's website for firmware updates that they might release to fix security vulnerabilities associated with your router. The updated firmware may also contain new security features as well.

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