Thanks to WiFi, we’re more connected than ever before. Entire households run on wireless internet, including smartphones, laptop computers, smart home devices, gaming systems, and more. While using WiFi to power our devices can make life easier and more mobile, this type of internet connection can also open us up to online threats.
Many people realized this possibility back in September of 2020 when iOS users began receiving alerts that their WiFi wasn’t secure. But what exactly does that mean and what can be done about it? In this article, we’ll discuss some WiFi basics, potential threats to your security, and the three steps you need to take to secure your home WiFi.
How WiFi works
Though a WiFi connection is considered “wireless,” the connection still comes into your home over an outside network of lines made up of either copper or fiber-optic wires. These wires connect to a jack in your home, which then connects to your modem via an Ethernet cable. The signal becomes wireless when it is broadcasted via radio waves from your router. Then you can connect any wireless device in range to that network.
Many people use these two terms somewhat interchangeably. A wireless router is the equipment that transmits your internet connection to a WiFi signal that you can use throughout your home. A modem delivers the internet connection from the provider’s network to your home. However, these days most modems often have the router built-in. At CenturyLink, our modem/router combo is officially called a residential gateway. But you’ll notice we frequently refer to it as a router and occasionally as a modem, the terms preferred by most users.
Wireless connections can be set up in two ways: secure and unsecured. Secure wireless connections are protected by passwords. A router password (often called the admin password) allows you to access all the settings for your router (using a special URL through your browser), while a WiFi or network password allows your devices to connect to your network. Most CenturyLink modems are set up with wireless security turned on by default. This means that when you try to connect your device to the wireless network, you’ll be prompted to provide the WiFi or network password. A connection that is not secure means just that — anyone within range can connect to it without a password. You might see this type of WiFi network in public spaces, like coffee shops or libraries.
Despite built-in security features, many people leave the default settings in place on their router/modem and network. Consumer Reports found that 62% of people never change the admin password for their router. That information is commonly found in user manuals or is the same across brands and models, making it easy for other people to get access and interfere with your router, changing your settings or locking you out of your own router. Even when people do set a unique password, it is often weak, and they forget to change it regularly, leaving their network vulnerable to hackers.
An unprotected network can compromise your photos and data, as well as your personal and financial information. Though you may only give out your password to family members or visiting guests, you may still end up with some uninvited visitors on your connection.
Do you know who is on your connection?
If your network isn’t secure, you may not know who else is accessing your connection. Your neighbors might even be borrowing your WiFi to stream content and surf the internet. It might not seem like a big deal to let your neighbors borrow your WiFi, but it can be. If they can access it without your permission, strangers on the street might be able to as well.
While neighbors might not have any interest in your electronic files and information, a stranger might take advantage and access your private information. A hacker can snag your sensitive information by using a man-in-the-middle attack, deploying tools that allow them to intercept any data you’re transmitting, scanning your emails for passwords, downloading unlawful content, or using your computer to distribute spam, spyware, or viruses. Not only could you be held responsible for any malware that originates from your network, but someone could steal your identity, skim from your bank accounts, or even take your family photos.
Network hacking is a serious risk that can be remedied with just 3 steps. Here’s how to secure your home WiFi:
1. Rename your network
Every device that broadcasts a wireless connection has a network SSID, or “service set identifier.” This is just a fancy way of saying “network name.” These names are usually preset and generic, which makes it easy for hackers to find and target them. You should update your network name to something unique. You can have some fun by choosing a personalized name — as long as it doesn’t reveal your family’s identity. Be sure your new network name doesn’t contain any clues for your password, either.
To update your network name, you must first access the modem’s wireless settings by logging into your modem’s user interface and then navigating to the Wireless Settings menu. To do this:
To update your network name, you must first access the modem's wireless settings by logging into your modem’s user interface and then navigating to the Wireless Settings menu. To do this on a CenturyLink router:
- Connect a device, such as a computer or tablet, to the internet through WiFi or using an Ethernet cable connected to your modem.
- Open a web browser and type http://192.168.0.1 into the web address field.
- Log in to your modem's settings interface (Modem GUI) using your Admin Username and Password. You can find it printed on the modem label. This is not the same thing as your wireless network name (SSID) and password (key).
- Select "Wireless Setup."
- Select “Basic Settings” OR "SSID Setup.”
- Select the SSID you want to edit. You can find your SSID printed on your modem's label. Typically, the first one in the drop-down list is the one you want.
- If it's not already enabled, select "Broadcast SSID" to activate the network.
- Enter the desired network name. The SSID cannot contain spaces. Remember that this will be visible to others, so it should not contain sensitive information or clues to what your password is.
- Select "Apply" to save your changes.
2. Set strong passwords
To secure your WiFi network from parasitic neighbors and anyone else, start by turning on your router’s encryption and setting a custom password. You should set your security type to WPA3 if it’s available, or to WPA2, which requires every new device to enter a password to connect.
Then, you’ll need to create a strong password. The best passwords are lengthy, random combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols. Write down your wireless network password and tape it to the bottom of your router or put it in another easily accessible but secure place. You should also change your router’s password from the default. Make sure it is not the same as your new WiFi password.
If you are given the option of 64 bits or 128 bits, follow these guidelines:
- 64 bits: Enter 10 characters*
- 128 bits: Enter 26 characters*
* Characters can only contain letters between A-F and numbers between 0-9 with no spaces.
In all other cases, your custom password must:
- Be between 8 and 63 characters long
- Contain at least one number from 0 to 9
- Contain at least one letter from A to Z
Note: The space character can be used (but is not required)
3. Raise a firewall
A firewall is a hardware or software network security system that blocks out certain kinds of data from coming in or out of your wireless network. Your router likely came with one already installed, but it may be turned off by default when you set it up. You’ll sleep better at night knowing your personal data, files, financial information, and photos are secure behind your own private firewall.
To set up firewall on a CenturyLink router, follow these steps:
- Connect a device, such as a computer or tablet, to the internet through WiFi or using an Ethernet cable connected to your modem. Open a web browser and type http://192.168.0.1 into the web address field.
- Log in to the modem's online user interface (Modem GUI) using your Administrator Username and Administrator Password. Unless you have changed the default settings, you can find this information on the modem's sticker. Note that these are different from your wireless SSID and security key.
- Select "Advanced Setup."
- Select "IPv6 Firewall" in the left sidebar. Note: some older modems may only show “IPv4 Firewall” or simply “Firewall.”
- Enable/Disable stealth mode. Do not enable stealth mode unless you fully understand the impact.
- Enable the firewall.
- Choose to allow/block incoming and outgoing traffic on the network.
- Click "Apply" to save your changes.
What else can you do?
Keeping your connections safe and secure is a worthwhile investment of your time. Here are a few additional steps you can take to protect your network:
Set up a guest network for visiting friends that need to use the internet. This will get them online without giving access to your main network, which protects you from any infected devices.
If you are concerned about WPS security, you can disable the WPS button function on your router.
And finally, brush up on other tips for internet security.
With a little extra effort, you can be sure your network isn’t spreading malware to other machines around the globe, your keystrokes aren’t being logged, and that your information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.