August 01, 2004

Wireless Networking Best Practices: Version 2.0

I've updated my Wireless Networking "Best Practices" to add even more things you can do to harden your wireless network against intrusion. Please keep in mind there is a diverse range of networking equipment available, and that this information is provided as a courtesy. I've taken considerable time to compile and publish this information, because I have not found any single good source for all of these items. It's grown into quite a compilation.

This is also mostly geared toward home Wi-Fi networks, but the concepts are adaptable for corporate networks as well. Thus, you choose to make all changes at your own risk. If your router or access point has an option to backup its settings, then I highly recommend you back it up before and after making any changes, as well as being diligent in documenting any changes made. If you don't want to be an easy mark for wardrivers or your neighborhood hacker, read on. It's worth your while.

First, you really must change many of the default settings. Hackers and wardrivers know them all, because there are web sites that publish them.

This means you'll need to access your wireless router's configuration screen. One of the easiest ways is doing this through your web browser, and while you should be careful in the settings you change, it's something even a novice can do. While this isn't an all-inclusive list of security measures, these are things most home network users can do with care:

  • Change the default SSID (Service Set ID or network name).

    Hackers know all the default values for nearly each make and model, as they are posted all over the Web. If you really want to know, try another simple Google search for the following: default wireless SSID.

    The SSID is your network name, and your wireless cards use this like a login name to connect to your network. That's why it's so important to change it from the default value. Resist the urge to name it after yourself or anything personally identifiable -- this just makes it easier for a hacker to find or guess a targeted network's name, and you just provided the casual hacker with your name.

  • Disable the SSID broadcast.

    By default, most wireless network equipment broadcast the network name to make it easy to find and connect to. If it's a convenience to you, it also makes a hacker's job a whole lot easier. Free programs like NetStumbler make it a breeze to find nearby networks and to tell its user the network names, whether or not they're encrypted, and much more. Disabling the broadcast of your network name essentially hides the network's login name. If convenience is a concern, then instead of broadcasting your network name, you're much better off setting your wireless software on your laptop to automatically login to it as a "preferred network".

    Be forewarned, however, that even if you turn off your router's or access point's SSID broadcast, your laptop's Wi-Fi card will give it away. Wi-Fi cards broadcast the SSID in clear text when they attempt to connect to your Wi-Fi network. Like many of the other precautions listed here, disabling the SSID broadcast just makes it a little harder for the bad guys. The upside is that you're not broadcasting your network name 24 x 7, and that helps to make your network less visible. Otherwise, leaving the SSID broadcast enabled is the same thing as putting up a neon sign that says, "Hey guys, here I am, come hack me!"

  • Change the default password for the router's Administrator account.

    Again, wireless hackers know these defaults, most of which are simply "admin". Try a Google search for: default wireless router passwords. You'll find sites that list the login names and passwords for many manufacturers. Even if your particular model isn't listed, many manufacturers use the same values across their models.

    If you don't change the password, then an intruder could easily reprogram your router to lock you out and open more security holes to allow him/her easier access. You'd then have to reset your router back to its default factory settings, and start all over again.

  • Enable MAC Address Filtering.

    This is a key wireless security measure, as it adds yet another layer of protection. Every Ethernet network card, wired or wireless, has a unique number called a MAC address. Enabling this feature tells your router to only allow access to authorized Ethernet cards. While it's possible for hackers to "spoof", or fake, a MAC address, it requires a higher level of hacker savvy, and it takes longer. The idea is to make it as difficult and time-consuming for wireless hackers, to discourage them to move on to easier pickings.

    If you're wondering where to find each network card's MAC address, many of them have it printed on a label right on the card. Here's another easy way to find it:

    For Windows NT/2000/XP/Vista:
    1. Click on Start, Run, and type in cmd
    2. Click OK, and a DOS-like window will appear.
    3. Type ipconfig /all and press ENTER.
    4. This will likely list information both for your ethernet network card and for your second wireless card. Under the wireless card, the "Physical Address" line should provide the 12-digit MAC address.

    For Windows 9x/ME:
    1. Click on Start, Run, and type in winipcfg
    2. Click OK, and an information window will appear.
    3. In the pull-down section, click and select your network card.
    4. The "Adapter Address" is your card's 12-digit MAC address.

    This 12-digit number is the one you need to enter into your wireless router's table. Make sure MAC filtering is set to only allow specified MAC addresses access to your network.

  • Limit the number of allowed connections to the bare minimum needed.

    Most routers will let you restrict the number of network connections. For example, if you have one desktop and one laptop, you only need two connections.

  • If you can, consider disabling DHCP and assigning each of your PC's a static IP address.

    DHCP (Dynamic Host Control Protocol) is a method in which your wireless router automatically assigns an IP address to each PC connected to the network. Thus if a hacker joins your network sufficiently, your router will cheerfully give her an IP address as well. Which is why limiting the number of connections is so important, and turning off DHCP so they don't get an automatic IP address.

    BIG CAVEAT: It's probably ill-advised to set a static IP address if you connect your laptop to an office network. Most corporate networks use their own DHCP servers to assign and control IP addresses, and your static IP address could conflict or be in the wrong range. Thus if your laptop needs to connect to two or more networks, you probably will want to leave this alone.

  • Enable the highest encryption possible: WEP 128-bit (802.11b) or WPA with TKIP or AES (802.11g).

    Due to the relative ease in which WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is cracked, WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is vastly preferred. For home use, most people will want to enable WPA Pre-shared Key (WPA-PSK) and use a long key name with a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and odd characters (such as ~!@#$%^&*).

    For the WPA Algorithm, at a minimum choose TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol). Better yet, use AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) if your router, Wi-Fi card, and software support it. TKIP is an interim industry solution, but it adds the ability to automatically generate new keys at preset intervals. (For you Trekkies, this is akin to rotating the shield harmonics to repel the Borg. ;^) Rapidly changing keys gives the wireless hacker much less time to "sniff" and break the code before it changes again. Again, AES is the stronger encryption method that the wireless networking industry has been moving toward and is the preferred choice. If you have it, use it. [Update: The TKIP protocol has been partially hacked, so only use it if your router doesn't support AES. Many router manufacturers provide free firmware updates for your router that will allow you to use AES encryption instead.]

    Please note that encryption reduces your overall network performance. However, since Internet speeds via cable and DSL are usually much slower than your network with encryption (especially under the "g" protocol), it should have no effect on your Internet access speed, just on file and print sharing speeds within your local network.

    If you don't have WPA as an option, check your wireless equipment's manufacturer's web site for any firmware upgrades to WPA. If you can't upgrade your equipment, then enabling WEP encryption is better than nothing. However, I strongly suggest spending the money and upgrading to newer equipment that features much stronger encryption and is faster (12mbps with "b" wireless vs. 54mbps with "g" and 108mbps with "super g").

    [Update: If your router and wireless devices support WPA2, use it instead of WPA as it is more secure.]

  • Don't run your wireless network as a mixed "b" and "g" environment.

    While 802.11b and 802.11g networks are compatible, it's not desirable regarding both security and performance results. The problem is that as soon as you add even a single "b" device to your wireless network, it brings the network down to the lowest common denominator. In this case, that means you only get the weaker and inferior WEP encryption (unless the "b" device can handle WPA), and the much slower "b" network speeds. Thus running a "pure g" network is better all around.

  • Limit folder/file sharing to the minimum with password protection.

    If you're home network is typical, you may have enabled folder/file sharing between your PC's for convenience. If you must enable sharing, then limit it to only those subdirectories required. Don't enable sharing at the root level of the hard drive. For instance, you might want to move a shared "My Documents" folder to another drive or partition and only grant access to it, rather than your entire hard drive.

  • Change the default IP address of your wireless router or access point.

    Again, hackers know these default addresses, so they know where to find your network devices. For instance, many Linksys routers default to and Netgear's are Under Internet standards, one of the three available private network IP ranges is from to (Tip: Each 3-digit section can only go from 0-255. Also, since 0 and 255 can have some special significance, avoid these two values.)

    For example, you could change the IP address of a Linksys router from to, or (depending on which of the last two segments you want to change). Or you could pick a really odd number to make it difficult to guess, such as Just keep in mind that it's more important that you can remember it. Otherwise, you won't be able to access your router to make changes (at least not without having to reset it to factory defaults and losing all of your hard work -- not good).

    If you change this default IP address, also keep in mind that if you ever need to reset the router back to its factory defaults, afterward you'll have to manually login at the default address (e.g., and change it back to your custom number. If your router is not using DHCP, then it's a good idea to keep your PC's IP addresses and the router's address coordinated.

    By changing your router's default IP address, you are changing its location on your private network. Thus a hacker looking to access your router for reprogramming or discovering your settings will not find it nearly as easily.

  • Make sure the router's firewall is enabled.

    Most routers have their firewall enabled by default, but just make sure it's enabled, along with any related feature to block pings or "anonymous Internet requests". This will help stealth your network's presence to the Internet at large.

  • Make sure the DMZ is disabled on the router.

    A DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) is a buffered zone that separates the Internet from your private LAN. However, in most SOHO routers, enabling the DMZ bypasses your router's NAT (Network Address Translation) and other filters, so it greatly weakens the security of any device located in the DMZ. Thus unless you're very savvy with networking, keep the DMZ feature disabled.

  • Disable the router's Remote Management feature.

    Remote management allows you or others to access your router to change its settings from outside your local area network. This should already be disabled as a default setting, but check it. Disabling remote management only allows access to the router's settings from within your private network.

  • Disable Universal Plug 'n' Play (UPnP) on your router unless you absolutely need it.

    UPnP is used for some devices like the Xbox game system. If you don't have a UPnP device, then make sure it's disabled. Otherwise, it's another potential security hole for your network.

  • Use a VPN to connect to your office network when using a wireless network.

    A VPN (Virtual Private Network) provides remote access to an organization's network over the Internet, through secure "tunnels" created by additional encryption. Typically, when your PC is connected to your office's network via a VPN, it can't "see" the rest of the Internet. Thus it's no surprise that VPNs are commonly used to help secure wireless networks. If your organization offers VPN use, it's yet another wireless networking best practice in your arsenal.

  • Place the wireless router or access point away from outside walls to minimize signal leakage.

    The closer you locate it to an inside wall, the more signal drop-off will occur by the time it reaches the outside. You don't want to provide a nice strong signal for others to jump onto your private network.

  • Configure your laptop's wireless card software appropriately.

    To avoid accidental connection with strange Wi-Fi networks (you don't know where they've been or who's on them), configure your wireless card's software for the following:

    1. Connect only to access point (infrastructure) networks, to avoid any undesired "ad hoc" peer-to-peer connections, and
    2. Uncheck any feature for automatically connecting to non-preferred networks. Otherwise, your laptop will jump onto the first open network it finds. If you routinely forget to turn off the card's radio, this will help stop it from getting you into trouble.

Additional "Must Use" Safeguards:

  • Personal or software firewalls, such as ZoneAlarm Pro and Norton Internet Security

    Even if your router has a good firewall, it generally won't stop outgoing traffic from spyware and malware that's phoning home. A properly configured personal firewall will. You also need a personal firewall on your laptop when you connect to other access points, such as when traveling.

  • Good antivirus software

    I'm quite partial to the Norton Antivirus line, it just works without causing me any problems.

  • Anti-spyware/malware programs, such as Ad-aware, Spybot Search & Destroy, and PestPatrol

Ongoing Maintenance for the Best Security:

  • Keep the personal firewall and antivirus programs updated with the latest definitions.

  • Keep up with the various security patches from Microsoft.

  • Change the router's login name and/or password periodically. Use strong passwords (at least 7-8 digits, with mixed case, numbers, and other characters).

  • Change the wireless network SSID value periodically. Again, use strong names (at least 7-8 digits, with mixed case, numbers, and other characters).

  • Change the WEP or WPA encryption keys periodically. Same advice regarding strong passwords applies.

  • Always check all of the above settings after performing any router firmware upgrades. For example, Linksys router owners discovered that upon upgrading from firmware version 2.02.2 to 2.02.7, Linksys changed the firmware's UPnP default to "enabled" just to earn Microsoft Xbox certification. However, for most of their customers, they just opened up another potential security hole. Thus it's helpful to print out all of your router's setting pages and keeping them in a secure place for reference.

Naturally, the more secure you make it, the less convenient the setup. But I'll take the extra wireless security anytime, because wireless networks are still horribly insecure compared to wired. But as you can see from the above, you can still do a lot to harden it against intrusion, and it doesn't take a networking guru for many of them. Wi-Fi itself is a tremendous convenience and enabler, if it's done right.

[Update 11.29.08: Please see my post, "Wireless WPA Encryption Component Hacked -- How to Protect Yourself" in light of the published TKIP vulnerability.]

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard