Ensuring the Safety of Home Wi-Fi Networks

Professor Roberts talks about cyber safety in a connected home...

When you stop to think about the issue, it probably makes sense that connected devices are no safer than the network they are connected to. I’ve written a lot about the safety of connected smart home devices, most recently the safety of smart TVs and making sure holiday gifts are set up to be secure and private. That’s all very important. However, a good new year’s resolution would  be to ensure the safety of the home network that supports all those devices.

As compared to specific smart items we can see and touch, a wi-fi network is invisible and somewhat complex. To make matters worse, tech writers describe it in terms of technical standards that have numbers, not names, and are totally incomprehensible to the non-technically-trained. I’ll try to cut through that fog for you and keep the numbers to an absolute minimum. To start with, here are a few terms that need to be understood:

  • Wi-fi permits connecting devices to the internet and to one another without ethernet cords. That not only eliminates the tangle of cords many of us experienced in our offices, but it also allows devices to be spaced out over the territory covered by Wi-Fi. That is essential to the smart home.
  • A modem is a hardware device that translates the signal sent from an internet provider into a form that is accessible to a computer. There are three types of modems, although this is not something the subscriber has to worry about. The internet provider takes care of the setup. The types of modems are old-fashioned dial-up modems, DSL modems that use cables to connect to the telephone line, and cable modems that use a cable to connect to an internet outlet box in the wall. Only a cable modem can deliver high-speed internet, another essential for the smart home.
  • A router is another piece of hardware that provides a connection between the modem and other devices from computers to smart plugs. Older wired routers must connect physically to each device by a cable but wireless routers allow wireless contact between devices that support the same network standards. (That’s where all the numbers come in.) Fortunately, the user doesn’t have to understand what the standards mean; just read the product descriptions to be sure they match. That’s not as hard as it sounds since most devices today support multiple standards.

To avoid expensive set-up most users opt to buy their own router and set up their own network. Here’s an article that’s about as straightforward as they get, and it’s still filled with numbers and tech-speak. Scroll down a bit and you will find a good section on buying a router. That’s where there are two standards all purchasers need to know. The first describes connection speed and coverage. 802.11n or ac are the preferred standards today, but they should be backward-compatible to accommodate older devices. The second standard is concerned with security, of great importance since the router is the gateway to the entire network. WPA2 is currently considered the most secure standard. The coverage of routers varies greatly, but a general rule of thumb is that a router will provide coverage to a typical house, assuming the router is located roughly in the middle of the house. It’s like a cell phone; the fewer bars, the weaker the signal. Look at the number of bars when you are near the router, then walk to the most distant part of the house. There will likely be a significant difference in the number of bars. Here’s more detail on coverage.

  • A large home, one that is spread out, or one that has obstructions that bar the network signal may require a mesh router. There are other options for extending the network but the mesh router seems easiest for a non-technical person to set up. Here’s an article that describes mesh networks and other options in reasonably understandable terms.

The basic steps to make your home network secure are:

  • Locate the router close to the center of the home to give the best possible coverage.
  • Give it a new name, getting rid of the manufacturer-supplied one which is a guide to hackers. Try to choose one that doesn’t give away any information about who and where you are.
  • Change the manufacturer-supplied password. A good password will be at least 20 characters long and include numbers, letters, and symbols. Your guests will hate having to enter that password, but the safety is worth it.
  • Activate encryption, choosing WAP2 if it is available which it should be on all newer routers.
  • A network administrator password is necessary to access the manufacturer’s online site and that password should also be strong and unique.
  • Turn off remote access. That prevents access from any device not connected to your network and is a deterrent to hackers.
  • Be sure software updates are enabled.
  • Be sure the built-in firewall is enabled. That is an important protection. If your router does not have a firewall there are many available. Some security software includes them or there are free versions available online.

There are other recommendations that may be a bit more difficult and should be undertaken only by those who are sure they completely understand the instructions.  They include:

  • Turn off the network when you are absent for a significant period of time. This makes it unavailable to hackers. If you plan to do this, find and bookmark the instructions in the operating manual so you can do it quickly when the time comes.
  • Turn off DHCP functionality. That has to do with the IP addresses used by your devices and may present problems for the non-technical user.
  • Set up a different password for guests.
  • Set up a guest network. A different password may be easy if the option is provided but a different network is likely to be more challenging.

This is a good post with details on most of the recommendations. Search the site Lifewire for short posts on virtually any of these recommendations. Research before working on your network should make the issues clearer. However, I strongly recommend that once you start you follow the manufacturer’s process step-by-step.

There are tools that assess the safety of the home network. I tried one called ShieldsUP! and was impressed with its ease of use. It correctly identified all connected devices that were turned on and happily gave me a thumbs-up on my network security. You will notice that the site has accessed some information about your router before it allows you to proceed with the test. There are other free tools available and often free trials for paid network security software.

This is a complex subject, and while it’s important that you consider the security of your home Wi-Fi I suggest keeping it as simple as possible. Take your time and be prepared to exhibit some patience. Whether you are trying to implement some of the security settings on an existing router or whether you are setting up a new device, first read the operating manual—carefully and all the way through. It’s easy to get lost in all the detail and an overview is helpful. Then take it one careful step at a time. Skip steps if you are sure you don’t need them but don’t jump around. Try to find a time where you won’t be constantly interrupted and will be able to finish in one session. That’s much easier than trying to go back in.

Remember that your router is the gateway to your home network and keeping it secure is important to the safety of your data and to your peace of mind. It’s a new year’s resolution worth keeping!

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