Laptop wireless security refresher

Critical laptops need careful connections

Let's recap: during my first Laptop Safety Seminar in Indianapolis on April 23, I was surprised at how many questions from the audience concerned basic laptop wireless security. People love laptops and love wireless connections, but don't love the extra security steps required so too often just avoid them. Not a good plan.

Now that 65 per cent of new computers bought are laptops, and almost all of them include wireless networking right out of the box, those extra security steps are critical.

Microsoft built peer-to-peer networking into all versions of Windows as far back as Windows 3.1 for Networks (my copy dredged up from the Gaskin Lab archives is dated 1992). Many small businesses and home networks rely on this peer-to-peer network protocol to exchange files between systems quickly and easily. Right click on a folder, click Properties at the bottom of the context menu that appears, and Sharing is the second tab on the page that opens. Two clicks later, or a couple more if you have to poke holes in your firewall, and the folder can be accessed by anyone. Every folder icon with a little hand under it is shared in this manner, even over wireless networks.

Windows 2000 allowed access to these files using the Guest login with no password by default. Windows XP makes it a little more difficult, but users routinely set up the Guest account with an easy password. I bet half of them use the password "guest." Username "guest" with password "guest" violates every security policy every written by a security expert.

People don't understand that a public Wi-Fi network is just one local network, where every device is visible to every other device. This works the same way as a small business network with all computers plugged into the same router. While this arrangement makes sharing resources like network printers and shared PC drives simple, an advantage in a safe office environment, the same arrangement is completely insecure on a public Wi-Fi network.

Consider wireless hackers waiting for unwary prey in areas offering free Wi-Fi just like any other criminal: there aren't that many, but if you get unlucky you stand to lose quite a bit. Muggers may only take your wallet and watch, but wireless hackers can empty your bank account before you know you've been wirelessly mugged.

Exercise caution on two fronts. First, find the official Wi-Fi connection offered by the host location, whether it's a local coffee shop or a remote airport. Second, be smart about your online activities.

When you open your wireless utility and scan for networks, you may see one or a dozen. First, and most important, rule is to notice whether those networks are labeled "ad-hoc" or "infrastructure" or maybe "access point." Never connect to an ad-hoc network, because those are usually other laptops run by hackers trying to gain access to your system.

Second, look for the Service Set Identifier (SSID) for the company providing your free Wi-Fi connection. They may hand you a card with the details, like at hotels, or they may assume you'll know "Coffee By Bob" is the network name to pick when you're sitting inside Coffee By Bob the coffeehouse. Choosing other names will only lead you to trouble.

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