Beating the wireless blues

Bridging the gap: Beat the wi-fi black holes

You can use three methods to extend the range of your wireless network, with the goal to fill any "dead spots," or simply to add areas where a single wireless gateway can't reach.

Wardriving: When wireless insecurity strikes

"How did you know that name?" asked a concerned-looking Debrann Schad, an Oakland, California-based contractor, whose trip to the garbage can was interrupted by my question. "Only four people in the world know that nickname."

I'd found the name (which Schad asked me not to publish) using a wireless-enabled Pocket PC outside her house. Schad's gateway, located inside her home, was spilling Wi-Fi out to her curbside. The gateway had been set up in such a way that its identifier, labeled with Schad's high school nickname, was broadcast to anyone who happened to wander within range.

Though Wi-Fi is designed to work over short distances, folks who live or work adjacent to a Wi-Fi network (or who simply sit in a car near one) may be able to "borrow" access and use the wireless network.

Some Internet users scope out unprotected wireless networks (an activity known as wardriving) just for sport. A few Web sites publish maps that show the locations of open networks, with data provided by users who drive around and collect the information, using GPS-enabled laptops and software such as NetStumbler or Kismet. A search on WiGLE can yield anything from a handful to hundreds of listings of unprotected Wi-Fi networks, depending on the geographic location you search.

Using a pricey tool for network administrators called AirMagnet and a Pocket PC handheld, I saw her network identifier, or SSID, the brand of gateway she was using, the channel it was broadcasting on, and the fact that it was unencrypted.

In Schad's case, the risk was moderate. A friend had set up her network; Schad relied on it only occasionally, and never used it to check mail or shop online. But the friend left the gateway's default passwords enabled. Anyone nearby could have logged in, using the password published in the gateway's manual (and widely available on the Internet to those who know where to look), and altered her network settings.

If someone had deleted her DSL log-in, for example, Schad would have lost Internet access. An intruder could have set up WEP encryption, locking Schad out of her own network.

The risks would not have stopped there, however. A wardriving passerby probing Schad's local network would have discovered a networked printer and her PC, connected by wires to the gateway. Schad didn't have Windows' built-in file sharing enabled, but if she had, the snoop would have been able to root around in the files on her computer. A vandal could also have used up all the paper in Schad's networked printer, or could have printed obscene messages or images. And if a worm or a virus had placed a Trojan horse on her PC, someone could have remotely controlled it.

What can a Wi-Fi user do? "People, turn your security on, please," says Wi-Fi Alliance spokesman C. Brian Grimm, in a tone of mock exasperation. "At a bare minimum, change the default settings, like the SSID and passwords, and password-protect your shared drives, if you have any."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Glenn Fleishman

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?