From the Kenosha News on 9-17-06

How risky and dangerous is using wireless?

There’s a lot of misinformation circulating about wireless networks. Recently I’ve heard several people say, “If you use wireless, people can get to the stuff on your computer.” While the statement could be true, it isn’t usually. Here’s how to assess how secure you are when using a network – wired or wireless. This applies to people using network in public places – like airports, libraries, and hotels – and people who have their own wireless networks at home or in the office.

Whenever you connect to any network – wired or wireless – the data that you transmit or receive can be viewed by people with special software called a “packet sniffer.” This means that the web addresses you type in, any instant messenger sessions, and so on can be viewed by people using programs. When you are on-line doing financial transactions or transmitting sensitive data of any kind, you should look for “https:” (s is for secure) in the web address and the “locked lock” icon in the lower right corner of your browser. When these are present, your transmissions are encrypted; that is, they appear as gibberish if/when they are captured by people with sniffer software. Any data submitted on a non-secure web site can be viewed and possibly exploited. So the first precaution to take is to make sure you are using secure web sites for any sensitive transactions.

Second, some programs are never encrypted. Instant Messenger transmissions are particularly easy for sniffers to pick up, so never transmit something confidential via IM. Also, even if you connect to your e-mail via a secure connection, the “back end” transmission of e-mail – where it goes from your e-mail provider to the recipient’s provider – is not an encrypted transmission. If your packets are intercepted during this part of the transmission, they can be read. You should never send sensitive information like credit card or social security numbers via e-mail.

What about access to your hard drive? If you are on a network and have enabled File and Printer Sharing, then any shared resources on your computer are available to anyone else on that network. In Windows XP, you can check this by going through the Network Setup Wizard in the Control Panel. If you really do share your printer or files with other people in your home, you may not want to turn that off. If you are part of an office network, you should ask your network administrator before you change anything. Going through this utility is not terribly straightforward; if you’ve not gone through it before, then you likely do not have File or Printer Sharing turned on. If you’re not actually setting up a network, choose Other and then “This computer connects directly to the internet; I do not have a network yet.” If you do not know or have a workgroup name, specify something unique. On about the eighth screen, you will have the opportunity to turn on or off file and printer sharing.

If you have a wireless network at home, next week’s column will discuss how to make it more secure.

By Carol Sabbar from the Kenosha News on 9-17-06