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One Step Ahead: Not all wireless is created equal

April 24, 2012, Volume 58, No. 31

Another tip in a series provided by the Offices of Information Systems & Computing and Audit, Compliance & Privacy.

Wireless networking has become nearly ubiquitous to the point that, even in the great outdoors, there are fewer and fewer spots where wireless users can’t get “bars.” In addition to laptops, the list of devices that can make use of wireless networks now includes smartphones, tablet devices like iPads, printers, thermostats—even home DVD players can now deliver content and updates via wireless!

With so many networks available, how can you know which are safe to use? In many cases, actually, you can’t. Penn’s main wireless network, AirPennNet, is a very robust, high-bandwidth medium featuring state-of-the-art encryption and security which protects PennKey-authenticated users. An alternative network, AirPennNet Guest, which provides lower bandwidth and no encryption in transit is available to users whose time at Penn is brief or limited, and whose needs are not as demanding.

But what about the coffee shop on the corner, or the hotel you just checked into? Even major, reputable businesses sometimes offer free wireless networks that do not require authentication and/or encryption, and it’s a good idea in general to avoid open, unencrypted wireless networks on which other “freeloaders” ­maybe even the guy sitting next to you­—are intercepting (“sniffing”) and capturing traffic on the network, including yours.

At home, make your wireless network as secure as possible by using the strongest encryption your access point(s) provide (usually WPA-2), making sure the password needed for access is strong, and change all default administration passwords.

For more information on Penn’s wireless networks, visit www.upenn.edu/computing/wireless/

For additional tips, see the One Step Ahead link on the Information Security website: www.upenn.edu/computing/security/

Almanac - April 24, 2012, Volume 58, No. 31