How Stuff Works: How Your Wireless Router Password Works

By Marshall Brain

There was an arrest reported recently that should send shivers down the spine of anyone who has installed a wireless router, also known as a wi-fi router. In case you don’t know what a wireless router is, it is a small box that you buy for your house or apartment. It allows your laptop, iPad and other wireless devices to connect to the Internet. Tens of millions of people in the United States have installed wireless routers because they make it so easy to connect to the Internet.

It turns out that if you install a wireless router, and if you leave it in its default settings, and you turn it on, you have opened yourself up to a major vulnerability. Your new wireless router creates a wide open wi-fi hotspot with a diameter of several hundred feet. Because you have used the default settings, which means that you have set no password to prevent people from connecting, anyone nearby can now connect to your hotspot. It could be a neighbor, the guest of a neighbor, or someone parked on a nearby street. Because you have no password on your router, anyone nearby can connect to your router in just a few seconds.

When they connect, you will not know it is happening. And you may not even care. If they read a few web pages or check their email, the tiny bit of bandwidth they use would be imperceptible. But if they start watching a streaming video, you may notice that your connection has gotten really sluggish, and you may have no idea why.

The bigger problem, however, is illegal matter. If the person connected to your hotspot downloads illegal material, such as child pornography, federal agents are going to trace the illegal activity to your wireless router. Then, they are going to come after you. Once they find you, the attitude will be to arrest now and ask questions later. Meanwhile, the person who did the downloading is invisible. It might take days or weeks for your innocence to be confirmed.

So what can you do to prevent this scenario from unfolding? There are actually three different things you can do, all of which require a little bit of fiddling. If you are not a technology-minded person, this fiddling may be uncomfortable, and you may want to enlist the help of a friend who is technology-minded, or hire someone to configure things.

The basic idea is that your wi-fi router has a way to manipulate its settings. You need to log into the router and, at the very least, set up a password. How do you "log into the router?" The owner’s manual for the router will contain instructions. If you cannot find the manual that came with the router, you can find it on the Internet by typing the model number into a search engine. Some routers even come with a CD that will help you through these steps.

So log into your router, find the wireless settings and create something called a WPA password for your router. This will take only 30 seconds if you know what you are doing. As soon as you set that password, you have eliminated the threat of accidental arrest for illegal downloads. Of course, you have also just disconnected all of your own devices as well. So now you need to go to your laptop, your iPad, etc. and type in the password there as well. They will then be able to reconnect to the Internet, and chances are you will never have to think about it again.

If you want to be even more secure, there are two other things you can do. The first thing is to turn off something called SSID broadcasting. This is a feature that makes your network visible to anyone who is nearby. Once you turn SSID broadcasting off, you can connect because you know the SSID, but other people will not see your network. The other thing you can do is to turn on MAC address screening. You can enter the MAC addresses of each device you want to connect to your network. Anyone with an unknown MAC address will be denied access, even if they guess the password.

While you are making these changes, make sure your router does not create and enable a separate "guest network". If it does, disable it or set a password on this second hotspot as well.

By enabling all three of these features, you make it virtually impossible for anyone outside of your household to connect to your network.

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