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Wednesday 21:00-21:30
Rajesh Mirchandani presents a new series covering the latest developments and issues in the world of IT.
How to secure your wireless network
Technology journalist Rupert Goodwins' simple guide to protecting yourself from hackers

It's not hard to make your wireless network safe against nearly everything. If you follow two simple steps, you'll be effectively protected against just about all attacks. In fact, you're probably safe anyway – the signal from a home wireless network will only extend for a few metres outside your home. Beyond that, even MI5 is helpless.

However, inquisitive neighbours or unusually well-equipped passers-by may still fancy their chances. The two things that will identify your network as an easy target are its name, and the lack of a scrambling code.

Every wireless network has a name. That's set by your wireless router, the box that plugs into your broadband connection or your phone line and converts it to radio signals. When you turn it on for the first time it'll have the name that the manufacturers gave it - usually the name of the maker itself – Linksys, Netgear and so on. Hackers know that if a wireless network has one of these names, then the chances are that the owner hasn't bothered to change any of the standard settings – and since the hackers know exactly what to do with those standard settings, this makes it a tempting target. Change the name, and you'll put them off immediately.

Unfortunately, every different make of wireless router has a different way of changing its name. The jargon for the name of a wireless network is SSID, and if you look that up in the index of the manual that came with your router – normally on a CD, these days – then you'll find the instructions to change it. Alternatively, type the make and number of your router plus 'change SSID' into a search engine, and it'll find online instructions.

The other thing you need to do is to set the scrambling code. This jumbles up the signal so it can't be easily decoded, and so prevents anyone who doesn't know the code from connecting. Again, wireless network designers have chosen their own name for this – it's called a WEP key. To set one up, you'll have to enable encryption and type in a WEP key: the instructions that come with your router will tell you how to do both.

Many security experts say that you have to pick a complicated WEP key rather than something you can easily remember, or that you have to change it every week – nonsense. Just having one, no matter how simple, will dissuade 999 out of a thousand hackers. And the remaining one in a thousand will have software that'll crack your key no matter what you do – but they won't bother. They'll have moved on to your neighbour, who hasn't bothered to set any key at all, so you're fine in any case.

Make a note of your network name and key – I write both on a sticky label that I slap on the router. When you connect to your network for the first time with your laptop, it'll find the name and display it,but then ask you for the key. Type it in, and you'll be connected – and safe.

Finally, if you're out and about and want to connect to other wireless hotspots, then make sure your Windows is updated with the latest security patches from Microsoft -visit the Windows update site and follow the instructions.  Linux and Macintosh users will have their own update procedure, but there are far, far fewer security problems with that software anyway.

You should also have firewall software running - Windows XP and Vista have firewalls built in, and their Understanding Windows Firewall guide tells you more about how to use it.  And if you're in a new location and you don't know anything about the wi-fi hotspot you're connecting to, then don't trust it for sensitive information: email's fine, but save the home banking for home.

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