WPA Keeps Law Enforcement Away

Recently a Minnesota man was charged with aggravated identity theft and threatening the vice president after allegedly tapping into a neighbor’s wireless network and sending threatening email messages to US Vice President Joe Biden.   With a long history of having disputes with neighbors, he also allegedly stole personal information, sent offensive email messages, and emailed indecent photographs to his neighbor’s co-workers from an email account set up to appear as if the messages were coming from the neighbor.

While this may be an extreme case, this situation does show why it is so important for home users to take the time to secure their wifi networks using WPA/WPA2 encryption.  There are no systematic studies of security on home wifi networks that I am aware of, but some researchers have found that upwards of 65% of wireless networks tested are open.  Given how easy it is to configure encryption on wifi networks, there is no reason not to do it.  This is especially true if you live in a high population density area such as an apartment complex where easily dozens of other people could piggy back on an open wireless network.  Someone could use an open network to send spam, launch attacks against you or others, gather your personal data, or commit other illegal acts such as downloading pirated software or illegal copies of music.

Bruce Schneier, a well known information security researcher, has famously talked about his open home wifi network.  He cites the following reasons for not securing his network:

  • Providing internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea.
  • Any potential spammer is far more likely to sit in a warm room with a cup of coffee at a coffee shop than in a cold car outside a house.
  • If you configure your computer to be secure regardless of the network it’s on, then it simply doesn’t matter.
  • Sharing Internet access is a polite thing to do and he likes to return the favor as he often uses open wifi networks when traveling.

While some of these arguments are legitimate, it still seems to me that from a risk analysis standpoint, it makes more sense to secure a wireless network than not, especially if you live in a densely populated area.  It only takes a couple of minutes to turn on WPA or WPA2 encryption, so there is very little cost to doing so.  But the benefits of enabling this security are quite high.  It significantly raises the amount of work a would-be attacker or scammer would have to undertake to abuse your wifi network.  In all likelihood, unless you were specifically being targeted, he would simply move on to a more easily accessible network.  So use the built-in security provided by wifi access points.  It is easy to configure and can help prevent you from being woken up in the middle of the night by the FBI.

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