Keeping your neighbors out of your network

Maybe you’ve seen signs of traffic going through your wireless router, when none of your devices are even turned on. Maybe you just want to insure that no-one else taps into your internet connection. After all, a freeloader could get you in legal trouble by downloading questionable material through your connection. In any case, you want to make things secure. The first step is to get in to your router’s administration menu. This is best done from a computer that has a direct Ethernet cable link to the router in question.

The router doesn’t even need to be connected to the internet, just powered on! Try typing “http://routerlogin.net” — that’s .NET not .COM — in your browser window, and most routers will give you a nice graphical menu. What if it doesn’t? You’ll have to do a little detective work. Navigate to your Network Connections through your Start (or equivalent) menu via your Control Panel (or a shorter path if you see one available to you), click on the icon for your Connection, and view its status. The entry called “Gateway” is what you want, the IP address of your router; it will commonly be something like 192.168.*.* — the last number will most likely be 254 if you’re plugged into a combination modem/router, or 1 if you’re connected to a stand-alone router. Type those numbers into the address bar of your browser. You will probably need to enter a password to access the administration functions. If you don’t, it would be smart to set a password yourself while you’re working with it — after all, anyone who can get into this menu can undo all the protections you’re putting in! Some routers have a sticker on their underside with the passcode printed on it; others, you’ll have to connect to the internet, go to the manufacturer’s website, and look up the default passcode for whatever model you have. If that doesn’t work (perhaps you bought the router at a garage sale), you can reset the passcode (and all other settings) to factory defaults by using a paperclip (or some such) to depress the recessed button on the router while the power’s on. Okay, let’s say you’re in the router’s internal management menu; different manufacturers and router models arrange things in too many different ways to predict here, but it should be fairly obvious, under a clickable heading like “Security” or “Wireless Settings”. Next, you have to decide what level of security you want. WPA encryption is decidedly better than WEP, but almost any encryption can be cracked by a determined invader, so consider your own needs. Are you going to have guests with laptops who you intend to allow access to your connection? If so, WEP may be the way to go, even with the added risk. Pick either a passprase or a hex code to match the encryption, write it down on paper, and put it somewhere out of public view, but also where you won’t lose it, for future reference. The router often can assign a random code for you, if you like. If you want a memorable hex code, to share with guests, you can pick something (10 or 24 characters, using numbers 0-9 and letters a-f) like “a69b69d69e”. Of course, don’t use my example, everybody knows it now. Be aware that with passphrases (any letter of the alphabet, any length), case matters; make sure what you type and what you write down are exactly the same! Save your changes by clicking the appropriate link or button in the router’s menu. If you were connecting via wireless to your router, you will now be cut off. This means that your wireless is now secure. When you try to reconnect wirelessly, you will be prompted to enter the key. Type in the hex code or passphrase you decided on, and you’re networking safely in your home!