Worried about Wi-Fi security?

You should be. The complexity of maintaining a home network is leading owners to put security on the back burner.

Even for IT professional Matthew Ingrassia, keeping a home Wi-Fi network safe from outside threats is close to a full-time undertaking.

The technical coordinator for Washington, D.C.-based law firm harbors apprehensions that someone may be able to infiltrate the wireless network he set up in his Maryland home, despite all the training he brought to it. And he's pretty sure there are a lot of less-experienced people out there with no clue just how vulnerable their wireless systems may be.

"Running a home network with no security is akin to unlocking your door and hanging a sign on your house inviting thieves inside to steal," Ingrassia said. "It's easy to see how for someone with no real training, figuring out how to protect yourself might seem nearly impossible."

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What's new:
As Wi-Fi networks become more popular in American homes, the need to protect systems from security threats becomes more urgent.

Bottom line:
But for many ordinary owners, the complexity of dealing with a wireless network is leading them to put security on the back burner. If technology providers can't come up with products that will change that attitude, then the problem will only get worse.

More stories on this topic

As Wi-Fi networks become popular in American homes, more people are exposed to dangers such as spyware, and the need to secure systems against those threats becomes more urgent. But for many ordinary owners, the complexity of dealing with a wireless network is leading them to put security on the back burner. If technology providers can't come up with products that will change that attitude, then the problem can only get worse.

People often struggle with installing their networks, causing them to think twice about putting in additional security measures or starting again from scratch to close potential vulnerabilities, experts said.

On top of this, the incompatibility between networking products from different sources, changing industry security standards and the growing number of devices people want to link to their wireless systems also daunt less-tech-savvy owners.

Networking industry executives say that as a result, getting consumers to use the security capabilities already built in to their wireless products is a struggle.

"Ease of use is a big problem. You can have the best encryption out there, but if someone can't set it up easily, it won't ever be used," said Mani Dhillon, the senior manager of product marketing at networking gear maker Linksys. "We've tried to make security an integral part of the (networking) setup process, but beyond that it's difficult to force people to use it. There's only so much that hardware manufacturers can do."

Plenty to lose
Studies suggest that an overwhelming majority of America's home wireless networks lack sufficient protection from outside intruders. According to figures from Gartner, some 80 percent of U.S. residential wireless local area networks, or WLANs, will classify as "unsecured" by 2007. The Stamford, Conn.-based research company contends that 70 percent of successful attacks on home wireless systems through 2006 will be the direct result of improperly configured WLAN access points and mismanaged client software.

And at a recent focus group session held in San Francisco, Tom Powledge, director of product management at security software maker Symantec, was amazed when four out of five people at the event admitted their wireless networks were not protected by any technology safeguard.

How to protect networks

CNET Labs walks you through the necessary steps to set up your Wi-Fi home network and keep it protected.

IntroWhat you need

Steps

1.Prepare for installation

2:Install the wireless router

3:Configure the router

4:Install wireless adapters

5:Configure wireless systems

6:Set the password

7:Set the SSID

8:Enable encryption

9:Filter Media Access Control addresses

10:Configure Wi-Fi systems

DevicesShare and share alike

More helpNetwork networking

Source: CNET Labs' "Tune-up" series.

For some of those people, the idea of offering open Internet access via their home network was novel and nothing to worry about, Powledge said.

"Some people really don't care too much if people are logging on secretly, using their wireless connection. They feel they're providing free Internet to neighbors," Powledge said. "But what these people don't understand is that if someone else starts using your network to browse whatever they want on the Web, it's going to come back to your IP address."

That means people can surf unsavory content from your unique, traceable Internet location--and slow your Internet performance down at the same time.

Those whose wireless systems can be penetrated are exposed to other serious threats too, Powledge pointed out. For example, attackers could implant malicious programs, including spyware, adware and Trojan horse applications, directly onto a computer. That could open the door to more serious problems such as online fraud or even identity theft, he said.

In one instance, a Los Angeles man pleaded guilty in September to distributing pornography spam e-mails, sent out using other people's Wi-Fi connections, which he accessed from inside his car. And in 2003, a man in Toronto was arrested for downloading child pornography using other people's unsecured wireless networks.

The practice of cruising around town to look for unguarded wireless networks has become so popular that the phenomenon has even

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