Through wireless networks, the internet has become a de facto utility, ranking with water and electricity in importance. But despite the critical reliance on connectivity, many people don't pay much attention to their wireless routers. These devices are internet gateways, complete with security features, such as encryption, designed to protect your data and wireless network.
Here's a look at the types of wireless encryption methods, how to determine the service you should use, and other factors affecting your wireless security.
Encryption affects routers as well as wireless access points, which extend the wireless coverage of an existing network. Wireless routers often function as access points, but not all access points work as routers.Filadrendron / Getty Images
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
If you set up your router years ago, it may use a form of wireless security called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). WEP used to be the standard for wireless security, designed to give wireless networks the same level of privacy protection as a comparable wired network. But its technical flaws and vulnerabilities were exposed, and the protocol fell out of favor.
WEP might exist on older networks that haven't been upgraded to newer wireless security standards such as WPA, WPA2, and WPA3.
If you use WEP, you're nearly as vulnerable to hacking as you would be without any encryption. WEP is easily cracked by even the most novice hacker using freely available tools found on the internet.
If You Suspect You're Using WEP
To see if your old router relies on WEP, log in to your wireless router's administrator console, and look under the Wireless Security section. If the router uses WEP, check to see if there are other encryption options available. If no other options exist, check to see if a newer version of your router's firmware is available.
If you upgrade the firmware and still can't switch to WPA2 or WPA3, replace the router.
W-Fi Protected Access (WPA)
After the demise of WEP, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) became the new standard for securing wireless networks. This new wireless security standard was more robust than WEP but had flaws that made it vulnerable to attack. This created the need for another wireless encryption standard to replace it.
In 2004, WPA2 replaced WPA (and the previous WEP), and in 2018, WPA3 replaced WPA 2 as the current standard.
WPA3 routers are backward-compatible, meaning that these routers accept connections from WPA2 devices.
Other Factors Affecting Wireless Security
While choosing the right encryption standard is a critical factor in a wireless network's security setup, it's not the only piece of the puzzle. Here are other factors that affect wireless network security.
Even with robust encryption, networks aren't impervious to attack. Your network password is as important as having strong encryption. Hackers use specialized tools to crack network passwords, and the simpler the password, the greater the chance of it being compromised. Make sure to change the default password that came with your network gear.
Make sure your wireless network router has the latest and greatest firmware updates loaded. This ensures that hackers can't take advantage of unpatched router vulnerabilities.
It may not seem important, but the wireless network name (also called an SSID) may pose a security risk, especially if it's a generic or popular name. A bad wireless network name is any name that was either set at the factory as the default name or one that is commonly used.
If your network's name is on the Top 1000 Most Common SSIDs, hackers may have the pre-built password-cracking rainbow tables needed for decoding your wireless network password.