Don’t park on the street with windows down
By Charles Miller
In the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson plays the role of a paranoid genius who sees evil schemes everywhere and believes the CIA, KGB and other three-letter agencies are all out to get him. The central character in the movie accurately mirrored one of my real-life clients in East Texas, right down to the padlock on his refrigerator. My client’s workshop was a hovel littered with half-finished inventions and piles of junk materials—all booby-trapped to thwart would-be intruders. One day he asked me how to best safeguard his computer floppy disks containing the secrets of his inventions, so I pointed to his fireproof safe. “No,” he said. “Someone could break in bringing 2,000 feet of copper wire to wind around the safe turning it into a magnet to erase the disks inside.” Showing I understood the concept, I pointed out that the circuit breaker would trip before a strong magnetic field could be generated. He answered, “They know that and would bring two dozen car batteries with them.” “Wait a minute! I said. “Who would ever do that?” I will spare readers his answer to that one.
That is not a conversation I made up; and I have to admit my life is a little less interesting not having that fellow as a client any longer. Recent events in the news have brought out a lot of paranoia among those individuals concerned for their personal privacy. Unfortunately, a general lack of technical understanding leads many of these internet users to make ineffective choices when attempting to protect themselves.
This is especially true when approaching the subject of Wi-Fi security. The first big misconception is that encryption and password security are synonymous; they are not. The second big misconception is that requiring a password to access your wireless internet provides security; it does not necessarily do so.
In the typical (non-business) wireless home network, most users find there is little likelihood of exposure… perhaps neighbors next door but certainly not large numbers of potential hackers in most cases. In these locations, having an encrypted and password-protected wireless network is something many technicians recognize as sometimes not being enough benefit to warrant the nuisance it creates. If a neighbor does poach off an unsecured network, that is easily detectable; if you do not know how to read the DHCP client table of your wireless router you should have a technician or one of the grandkids show you how. Do not be surprised to learn you have no problem with your neighbors or your network security.
The place where encrypted Wi-Fi is needed most is the one place it is almost never used: at the local coffee shop. Sure, you need to have a password to surf the internet there, but all the password does is prove you paid for a cup of coffee. In most establishments there is no encryption of the wireless signal, meaning that all of your communications are potentially visible to anybody else using the internet in the coffee shop! WPA encryption blocks inter-client access, but it is rarely used for public Wi-Fi because customers say they want easy and open internet access.
Bulletproof encryption is something people tend to use at home where it is arguably not essential, but then when away from home they expose their laptops to the whole world by using unencrypted public Wi-Fi. This is just like watching people pay for expensive locks, security systems, electric fences and guard dogs to protect their car when it is secured in the garage at home, but when away from home they park on the street with windows down, doors unlocked and keys left in the ignition with the motor running.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044-415-101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.