Wireless Routers in the Home
Article by Rick Leinecker, June 27, 2006

I have a wireless router at home that allows me to wander around anywhere in the house or yard with my laptop, and surf the Internet at the same time. There's nothing like lying in the hammock under the trees while reading email. But there are some precautions you need to take in order to keep your wireless Internet experience safe.

Home routers all have a login screen that allows you to change its options. You normally get to the administrative screens with Web browsers such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. Before going any further, check your router's printed instructions so you know how to get to the administrative screens. In most cases, by default, you run your browser and type http://192.168.1.1. Not all home wireless routers' administrative screens can be brought up in this manner, so you might need to read the printed manual might for instructions.

Your home router has a password. In fact, everyone who bought that particular router has the same password. And as surprising as that might be, there are Internet hacking sites that list all of the "out-of-the-box" passwords. Even someone who didn't buy a router like yours knows your password. Needless to say, you should change the password immediately. If you don't change the password, anyone who has access can reconfigure your router - an invitation for disaster.

The information that flows between your laptop (or other wireless computers) and the router is unencrypted by default. Encryption is a way of scrambling information with a secret key so only the devices that know the secret key can decrypt the information. It's kind of like the decoder rings that used to come in Cracker Jacks. One side of a conversation uses the ring to encode a message, and the other side of the conversation uses the ring to decode the message. If your router doesn't have encryption turned on, anyone who drives by your house with a wireless laptop can intercept and read your communications. You can turn encryption on very easily. There's usually a separate encryption screen in your router's setup panels. Try to find the word encryption, or possibly you might see the encryption types such as WEP or WPA.

All wireless communication devices have something known as an SSID. It identifies your router by name, and similarly to default passwords, identical routers come with identical default SSIDs. If you leave the default value alone, people will be able to connect with your network by using the default SSID in their laptop when they are in range. By changing the SSID to something unique, the chances of someone outside of your home guessing the right SSID value and connecting are small.

Overall I have four recommendations. The first is to get a wireless router and enjoy Internet connectivity in a new way - from the hammock. You should change the default password so that only you (or your delegated administrator) can set the router's options. Encryption should be turned on so that sensitive communications can't be read by those who shouldn't be reading them. And you should change the SSID so that not just anyone can join your wireless network.

Those are the basics of wireless routers in the home.