Over the past several years, wireless networking has become a fixture in American homes, invisibly allowing family members to connect not only their computers but their gaming consoles, phones and even items such as security cameras to their home network without the need of stringing cables. That’s the good news. The bad news is that without careful attention to security, your wi-fi can allow not only access to what’s on your hard drive or your credit card as you make an online purchase, but can put you in difficult legal trouble as well.
Many folks who spend a little more to get a higher end wi-fi router get it right (and by right I mean WPA2 protection) by default, but others with older or lower-end units need to either delve into the manual or make the decision to upgrade. My experience with two brothers provides an example. Recently I had the chance to visit my wife’s brothers in a Northern city. One brother works at IBM and his home wi-fi system had password protection using an extremely long string of letters and numbers. So far so good. But unfortunately it was an older unit, and utilized only WEP protection. Retailer TJ Maxx (and their credit card customers) found out the hard way several years ago that WEP can be cracked in about 60 seconds by someone parked outside your house and aiming an antenna made from a Pringles-can at your router. Meanwhile another brother ran his wi-fi unit with absolutely zero security, saying that nothing of importance was on his hard drive.
Neither brother understood the full impact of what could go wrong for them. The problem with an open wi-fi connection is that the outsider (it’s hard to even call him a hacker when all he has to do is request a connection) has full access to the internet using the wi-fi owner’s internet service provider. Because internet service providers typically give each home a static IP address, every footprint the outsider leaves on the internet leads straight back to the customer, not to the hacker. Any hacker who wants to do anything nefarious on the internet is going to prefer this all-to-easy method of getting his access to one that would leave footprints straight back to him.
The intruder could do anything from infecting your computer with a virus and using your hard drive to deliver child pornography to hacking the Defense Department to downloading movies illegally. The last one has become a problem for many computer users recently due to aggressive copyright lawyers. US Copyright Group (USCG) has been suing downloaders of pirated movies such as "The Hurt Locker" in federal court. Many of those sued have complained that they did not personally download the movie, and while some who claim not to have done it can point to children or grandchildren whose computer use was not adequately supervised, others have only an open wi-fi connection to blame. What's worse is that some of the downloading complaints involve pornography and the complaints that are filed in Federal court are public and images are carried on PACER (the court system's website) for anyone to see. If you get sued for downloading "Barely Legal Salad Tossers 3" because that was what some hacker downloaded using your connection, your name will forever be linked to that movie. In short, it's a form of identity theft, and one that may always leave a very public stain.
If you have an obsolete wi-fi router, retire it in favor of a newer model that provides WPA2 level security. If your router makes it too hard for you to implement WPA2, get some help or consider upgrading to a router with "one touch" provisioning for your devices. But don't ever make the potentially ruinous mistake of thinking that just because your financial life is not on your computer that you have no need of security.