Google still in the doghouse over its sniffing of private unsecured wi-fi networks

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

It seems that the company that prides itself on ‘doing no evil’ is still in the doghouse over recent admissions that it ‘inadvertently’ gathered snippets of data from private unsecured wireless networks whilst gathering images for its Street View service on Google Maps.

Not only is there a move in the US for a Class Action in the courts against Google, but government officials around the world are demanding that Google lets them look at just what data it did collect.

In a funny twist, Google is claiming that if it did so it might be breaking data protection laws and so its not, as yet, handing over the data!

Whatever the final outcome of this, its perhaps just another example of how Google is no longer going to get an easy ride. Further evidence of this are moves to get US legislators to investigate Google under anti-competition laws in view of the virtual monopoly it has in online search.

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Wi-fi owner in Germany fined for poor wi-fi security

Airport Wi-Fi
Image by slambo_42 via Flickr

It seems that the law is starting to take notice of the security risks of poor wireless network security, if the recent experience of one German citizen is anything to go by.

A German court has recently ruled that German citizens are responsible for the security of their own private wireless connections. What’s more, it has proved its point by ruling that a musician had the right to sue the owner of a network connection that had been used to illegally download and file-share music.

The owner had proof that the householder was on holiday at the time but the court ruled that the network should have been password-protected.

The court’s verdict was that the owner could be fined up to 100 euros (£86).

“Private users are obligated to check whether their wireless connection is adequately secured to the danger of unauthorized third parties abusing it to commit copyright violation,” the court in Karlsruhe said.

While it did not find the owner guilty of actual copyright violation the ruling was that the person must take a degree of responsibility for their connection being used to break the law.

In a similar case in the UK in 2005, Gregory Straszkiewicz was fined £500 and given a 12 months conditional discharge for using the wireless network of an Ealing resident without permission. The owner of the network was not charged.

However, this may change n the future and if you are running a wireless network that is unsecured, or even running the easily cracked WEP security protocol, now would be a good time to make sure your network is secure. You may get fined by the courts just yet but having an insecure network is asking for trouble. If you don’t wish to become a victim of identity theft then you should certainly be running the WPA/WPA2 protocol.

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Oops! Google does it again – this time its apologising for collecting Wi-Fi data via ts Street View cars!

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Google has issued an apology after complaints that its Street View cars had collected samples of British householders Wi-Fi browsing without their knowledge. The breach of privacy happened whilst the Street View cars were driving by open (i.e. insecure) wi-fi networks whilst taking pictures for Google’s Street View map service.

After initially trying to brush off accusations of foul play, Google has now admitted that it “failed badly” and that it was all a big mistake. According to Google’s Head of Engineering and Research, Alan Eustace, its Street View vehicles had been grounded and they are working on deleting the data as soon as possible, claiming Google had acted as soon it became aware there was a problem.

However, it only became aware that there was an issue following a request by the German Data Protection Authority for an audit of all Wi-Fi data collected by the vehicles. In April, the DPA revealed that the data was being collected by Google. Google’s initial response was to deny there was an issue at all but they later retracted this original statement. None of this helps Google’s reputation and its desire to be seen as the company that ‘does no evil’. Certainly, following on from the controversy over its Buzz service and in light of press articles about Facebook‘s privacy policy, it highlights once again that consumers need to be vigilant about their online privacy. It’s also a reminder that we should make sure our Wi-Fi networks are as secure as possible, certainly, not having even WEP security is a to be avoided, though the more secure WPA/WPA2 is preferable.

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Introduction to Wi-Fi Networks

2.4 GHz Wi-Fi channels (802.
Image via Wikipedia

Wireless Networks (Wi-Fi or simply WiFi): Wireless networks (sometimes simply referred to as Wi-Fi or WiFi) can be simple to set up or they can be a real pain! Sometimes its hard to know just why they won’t work as you expect them to. Well, if that’s your experience, here are some tips to help you get the most out of your wireless network. First, let’s set out the basics: Introduction – wireless networks are simply networks that operate without wires… just what it says on the tin! Except it’s a bit more complicated in reality. However, at its basic level, a wireless network needs a transmitter and a receiver.

Unlike wired networks (sometimes called LANs – Local Area Network) which need a wire between the transitter and the receiver, wi-fi works by transmitting the signal across the space between the transmitter and the receiver through the air (using radio waves). Now, usually, in the domestic situation, you will generally have a wireless router (the transmitter part) and one or more computers with a means of receiving the signal from the router (the receiver part). These days most laptops come with a built-in wireless card but if not its easy to add an external one via a USB connection.

Desktop computers rarely come with built-in wireless adapters but can easily be added via USB or by using an expansion card in an internal slot. The router will be connected to the internet via a modem (ADSL or cable – sometimes referred to as DSL). If yu get your internet via the telephone line then your modem will be ADSL, if you have Virgin Media Cable (or similar) then it will be via a cable connection. The difference is important for two reasons – one, your router needs to match your connection, and two, cable, at the moment, generally provides faster broadband connection.

Note: Just to say that though mobile broadband is becoming more common, its a different situation altogether as the router (or access point) will not be in your home/office but will in effect be the mobile network’s cell tower that also provides its 3G mobile phone service. At the moment the quality of this kind of ‘wi-fi’ is somewhat patchy and should (in my humble opinion) be avoided unless it’s the only way of getting a broadband service.

So, to recap, to have a wireless network you need several things:

1. An internet connection already (via the phone line – ADSL or via Cable)

2. A modem (ADSL or DSL/Cable)

3. A wireless router (usually described as 802.11 b/g or 802.11 b/g/n in terms of specification but may have also sorts of fancy branding using terms such as MAX or 300Mps)

4. At least one computer (either laptop or desktop)

5. A wireless adapter (or internal card)

Now, once you have these, we can begin.

In more depth:

Assuming you have followed the steps in your router manual/instructions and connected your modem to the outside world (phone line or cable connection) and connected your router to your modem, you need to make sure your wireless adapter or internal card is switched on. On many laptops you need to physically move a switch to turn your internal wireless card on. If you are using a USB wireless adapter then your manual/instructions may tell you first to install the software that came with it BEFORE plugging in your adapter.

However, if you are using Windows Vista or 7 it may say you have to download the latest drivers automatically, in which case you normally need to connected to the internet already. This may sound counter-intuitive but what it means is that you connect your computer directly to your router using an Ethernet cable FIRST, making sure you have a live connection to the internet, so that when you connect your adpater, Windows will download the driver automatically.

If you are using Linux or a Mac, then be sure to check the manual for the correct sequence. It may require you to download the latest driver from the manufacturer’s site. Once you have the latest drivers/software installed, your computer can then be disconnected from the router by unplugging the ethernet cable from the router and the pc. You are now ready to connect wirelessly.

Now the fun really begins! Depending on your operating software (Windows/Mac/Linux) and what version you are using, different things will happen. Lets look at Windows first: Windows: Normally, once your adapter is connected, Windows will generate a pop-up (usually bottom right of the screen) and say wireless network(s) has been detected, click here etc. You will then be able to select your own network (you do know its name – SSID don’t you? – if not, go back and read the manual for your router and it will tell you what it is). Now, normally, you will have not configured any security yet so you should be able to connect to your network and you will then be able to connect to the internet. If so, you need to go back a step, reconnect the Ethernet cable between your pc and the router and configure the security settings.

Assuming you have read the manual/instructions, you will be able to log onto the router’s configuration page and set up the security. You normally do this via a browser window by typing in the IP address of the router’s configuration page. For example, in Belkin routers it’s normally something like 192.168.2.1 or 192.168.0.1. – ignore the last full stop – it’s just a full-stop!

Now, in the security settings you will see some important settings. Let’s look at the most crucial ones:

1. SSID – this is the name of your network and I suggest changing it from the default (often something like Belkin or D-Link) to something more bland and unidentifiable to outsiders. Do NOT call it something that gies away who the network belongs to (house number, family name etc.) as this is a dead giveaway to hackers! Choose something like default1 or home1, the more boring and meaningless the better.

2. Encryption – such as WEP/WPA/WPA2/WPA Personal etc. DO NOT use WEP as its easily cracked. WPA2 or WPA Personal is better and more secure.

3. Choose a secure password – mix it up with symbols such as !@£*$ etc. DO NOT use short ones in just letters such as mypetdog. It needs to be at least 8 and preferably 12 or 18 characters long and a total mixture (gibberish really). problem is, you won’t remember it and if its secure you won’t be able to guess it either. You can write it down but I prefer to use some password utility that generates strong passwords and stores them securely for you. You then just need to remember a master password to unlock the password manager. Firefox has plugins that will do this for you. I use a Mac mainly and 1Password is a great utility for storing and managing not jsut passwords but credit card details, bank account logons etc. There are similar ones for Windows and Linux – Google or use http://www.download.com to find one.

4. Channel – this is where it gets a little complicated. For now, leave it on the default, but if you experience poor performance we will need to come back to this and change it. More on that later.

5. Wireless Mode – If you are suing a router that is N rated (802.11n) then you need a wireless card/adapter that is also. Otherwise use ‘Mixed Mode’ e.g. 802.11b/g/n. 6. WPA – Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) is the industry standard method to simplify the security setup and management of the Wi-Fi networks. You now can easily setup and connect to a WPA-enabled 802.11 network with WPS-certificated devices using either Personal Information Number (PIN) or Push Button Configuration (PBC) method. Legacy devices without WPS can be added to the network using the traditional manual configuration method. Most folk can ignore this, at least for now, until you understand how your network works and are sure its working ok. You can come back to this later and change it from disabled and follow the instructions in the browser page or manual.

Once you have set up security etc., you can then disconnect the ethernet cable and away you go, connecting wirelessly. Now, you may find that things don’t go smoothly as you had hoped.

Here are some of the reasons why this may be:

1. Microwave ovens, cordless phones, baby alarms AV senders and wireless security cameras all cause interference so minimise this by making sure they are not in ‘line of sight’ of router and Wi-Fire. Brick walls are an obstacle too, as is any source of electromagnetic radiation as they all leak across a braod spectrum and don’t just stick to their own! If you live in a Victorian property it may be the builder used chicken wire in the walls to strengthen and hold together the plaster – this KILLS wi-fi stone dead in most instances and apart from ripping out the walls you can’t do anything about, except go wired (using ethernet cabling throughout the house, or those new HomePlug adapters that plug into the mains, in which case you need at least two).

2. If you experience poor signal it may be due to interference for a neighbour’s Wi-Fi. In UK there are 13 channels (1-13). However, as they overlap, generally there is only 3 that are far enough apart to minimise interference from neighbouring networks operating on one of the other two. So, if you are on channel 1, try 6 or 13 and vice versa. You need to login to your routers configuration page to change the channel it uses. Check your manufacturer’s documentation or website if not sure how to do this. Generally its best to connect directly via Ethernet when doing this.

3. Make sure you uninstall existing Wireless utilities (from previous adapters or which came with your laptop for use with the internal wireless card) before installing the Wi-Fire. If using Windows, make sure your network settings are configured properly so that Windows configures your wireless network and not some proprietary utility. Also, delete any superfluous network connections.

So, hopefully, you will finally get up and running and if so, take my advice…. if isn’t broke, don’t fix it! Now for Mac and Linux users. In some ways life is easier for Mac users, as Apple has done (IMHO) a better job of the whole wi-fi thing with Airport. If you follow the basic steps outlined above, once you switch Airport on, things will generally work. All you will need to do is the same as Windows users – configure your router properly and enter the correct security logon and away you go.

If you experience problems, follow the tips above where they apply. My only other tip is, if you open Safari and it can’t connect to the internet, or your network, if offers you the option of opening up the system’s network configuration trouble-shooter. This will sort out most issues by just following the on-screen steps.

As for Linux users, the principles are the same basically. However, I am not a Linux expert and I would seek help if you need in in dedicated Linux forums. Just Google your problem, make sure to include ‘Linux’ in the search terms and away you go. I have often used forums to sort problems that had taken me days to fail to solve and have folk thousands of miles way sort out my problem in just a few hours or even minutes! Finally, if you have anything to add to this article or spot a mistake please let me know and I will add or amend things as needed.

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Welcome to “Wi-Fi Wisdom”.

Wi-Fi logo
Image via Wikipedia

Welcome to “Wi-Fi Wisdom”! This blog is intended to be a source of tips, advice, reviews and tutorials for anyone looking to get the most out of their wireless network.

Although I am not a ‘techie’ or a ‘computer geek‘ I have been working with computers since the early 1990’s and have lots of experience getting them to do what I want. I have worked with both Windows and Mac computers , as well as dabbled with Linux. I hope to avoid any overt bias to one OS or another but as I use a Mac as my main computer and Windows is the dominant OS on most folks desktops (UNIX is not common in most homes and SME’s), these two will feature more than Linux in my posts.

I will try to avoid any tendency to say Macs are better than Windows computers, even though I truly believe that on the whole they are (the computers as much as the OS). There, I have said it! I promise not to let it stop me pointing out where Macs are deficient or where Windows gets it right. However, as we will be concentrating on wireless networking in this blog, the actual OS is mostly irrelevant. Its will be more about protocols, practical things you can do to improve your wireless network’s performance and issues such as security etc.

Please do leave comments and any links you have found useful. I am only one person and its impossible for me to know everything.