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In the Spotlight 

Wi-Fi Safety - Wireless Protection
Westchester working to protect you on-line

New legislation signed by County Executive Andy Spano will curb consumer threats associated with unprotected wireless networks in Westchester County. The law, which is the first of its kind in the United States and possibly the world, requires commercial businesses to better protect the databases that contain personal information of their customers and to advise people in Internet cafes of the risks associated with wireless networks or “Wi-Fi.”

The legislation goes into effect on Oct. 17, 2006.

Read the new Wi-Fi law.

Get the highlights of a recent Westchester seminar that outlined how you can make your own network secure.

Wireless Networks…
You May Be More Vulnerable Than You Think

What you should know
Understanding the risks
Basic steps you can take

What you should know

Wi-Fi “hotspots” are popping up in a growing number of homes, businesses, hospitals, and even parks. But are they safe?

With many users unaware of free firewall protection and a built-in feature that scrambles data (called “encryption”) on their wireless devices, the answer is too often “no.”

National studies show that at least one-third of all wireless networks are unsecured. That means the  confidential data they carry and store can be picked up by electronic eavesdroppers hacking in from as far as a mile away.

Securing your network isn’t difficult or expensive. It just involves reading your owner’s manual and following a few easy steps, many of which are outlined here for you to follow.

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Understanding the Risks

Because of the very nature of wireless communications – that they occur in the open air and can be easily intercepted – Wi-Fi networks are more vulnerable to security problems than wired forms of networking. Hackers or intruders don’t need physical access to your hardware to disrupt operations. Anyone within radio range can theoretically tap into your wireless network and steal confidential data. This means that intruders may be sitting in your parking lot or in the apartment complex across the street.

Anyone who uses a wireless network should understand the potential risks:

• Freely available tools allow anyone to pinpoint insecure networks. Intruders inside your network may corrupt your data, consume network bandwidth, reduce network performance, launch viruses and attacks that prevent authorized users from accessing the network, or even attack other networks.

• Exploiting wireless networks is one of the many ways hackers can gain access to your personal information and commit identity theft. In 2004, 9.3 million Americans — or one in every 23 adults — were victims of the crime, according to the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy and Research. A survey by the Federal Trade Commission estimates that identity theft crimes tallied $52.6 billion in costs in 2004.

• While there are security features built into wireless networking products, most manufacturers turn them off by default because it makes the networks easier to set up. This effort to make wireless networking more user-friendly has rendered most equipment completely insecure from the moment it comes out of the box.

Part of the problem is that most software and service providers responsible for installing wireless equipment have no incentive to advise users of the risks. That is why Westchester County is encouraging both residents and businesses to take a proactive stance in safeguarding their networks from possible intruders.

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Basic Steps You Can Take

There are a number of steps that even non-technical users can take to make a wireless network more secure. Some general instructions follow, but you will need to refer to the owner’s manual for your wireless equipment for more specific instructions.

• Use personal firewalls. One of the easiest ways to guard a network from attack is to set up a personal firewall. Top firewall software products include ZoneAlarm Pro (free to download at www.zonelabs.com), Norton Personal Firewall and McAfee Personal Firewall Plus. If you are running Windows XP, Microsoft’s built-in firewall may already be turned on. Check also with your computer manufacturer to learn if firewall software has already been installed and enabled on your machine.
• Change your name. Most systems use a default SSID (network name) such as “wireless” or “default.” Hackers know that the popular LINKSYS product uses the name “linksys” as its SSID. Be sure to change default names to something unique that will not attract unwanted attention.
• Disable SSID broadcasting. Doing this hides the presence of your wireless network or at least obscures the SSID itself which is critical for a device to connect to your network. By turning off the broadcast SSID function, a hacker will have to guess your network’s name to get in.
• Scramble your data. In order to protect your data from prying eyes, you should scramble or “encrypt” it so that nobody else can read it. Most recent wireless equipment comes with both WEP (wired equivalent privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) encryption tools that you can enable. WPA is more robust and should be used if supported by your equipment.
• Block casual intruders. Each network device has a unique identifier called a Media Access Control (MAC) address, similar to a serial number. Some wireless devices allow users to create an “authorize MAC address table” which means only devices with serial numbers you’ve approved are allowed on the network.

Remember that even with all these steps, there’s no way to guarantee 100 percent security for a wireless network. Since protecting your wireless network is all about improving the odds that you’ll be safe, the more steps you decide to take the better off you’ll be.

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For further ways to protect your wireless network consult a qualified network specialist. Listings of local consulting firms are found online or through the yellow pages.

You may also visit your computer manufacturer’s website or call the consumer technical support line for assistance setting up a firewall and other security measures. Wireless service providers also offer helpful information on their websites on how wireless works and additional ways to secure your computer.

The Federal Trade Commission created a one-stop resource to learn more about the crime of identity theft and the many resources available to consumers and businesses: www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

ABI Research's Wi-Fi Research Service examines the efforts of Wi-Fi semiconductor and equipment vendors to make it easier for consumers to enable the security features of their equipment. It also analyzes the resurgence of embedded Wi-Fi in consumer electronics equipment.

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