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Using wireless networks IT and Library Services

Wireless networks, often referred to as ‘Wi-Fi' (or the more technical 802.11) networks are great, allowing you to connect to the internet whilst you're out and about, via your smart phone, tablet or laptop. It's important that you protect yourself when using these types of network as the characteristics that make them accessible and easy to use, also make them vulnerable!

Wireless networks use radio frequencies to create connections between devices and as the signals are all around us, if they're not protected anyone within range of those signals can see and use the same signal. Think about the FM radio frequency: it's not protected so anyone with an FM radio can tune into it!

The downside is that without suitable protection others can:

  • listen in or see what we're doing (watching us transmit private information which could be useful to anyone looking to steal our identity)
  • use our broadband connection for free (a problem if you're with a provider with set download limits which incur heavy charges if you go over them)
  • hack onto our devices (accessing our personal details and/or infecting our devices with malicious viruses or spyware)
Obviously we all want to enjoy the advantages brought by mobile access so we can work (and play) wherever we are.  Wi-Fi access is available in locations across the University as well as in coffee-shops, pubs and other public places.

Whilst you're in the University, when you search for available networks you should use the network described as ‘eduroam'. This network is also available across many other universities across the country (and indeed the world) so your device may well connect automatically once initially setup.

If you want to use publicly available Wi-Fi networks, you need to do so with care and take steps to protect yourself. These networks are often provided by companies who aren't in the IT business, so making sure these networks are protected by adequate security measures is not something that they will have the time or inclination to do.

Encrypt it! Encryption converts your information into a code which can only be ‘understood' by authorised people or devices. WPA (WiFi Protected Access) or WPA2 are considered the best and modern device should support this. Older devices may need to use WEP however whilst this is better than no encryption at all, it's not considered particularly secure..

Set a password: Set up a strong password at the point of access to the wireless network to prevent those who aren't authorized to, accessing your network.

One point of entry: By using access control you can restrict who can get onto your wireless network. In the example of a home wireless network, an access point is the ‘gate' through which all the devices in your household access the network. Using this method is safer as it allows you to set a password to restrict access by computer or device so only those you know can get on your network. Refer to the instructions for your wireless router for details as to how to do this.

Set up firewalls: Make sure that all the devices that can access your WiFi network have a desktop firewall.

Stick with the familiar. If you're using a hotspot, stick to those provided by trusted commercial operators like BT OpenZone or T-Mobile.

Access points only! Try and restrict your connections to access points rather than ad-hoc connections and use encryption (preferably WPA, but failing that WEP).

Use protection! Make sure the security on your computer or device is up to date especially where available, your firewall.

What are you doing?! Think about what you're actually doing on these WiFi networks - avoid transmitting sensitive information (i.e. like accessing your bank account). If you have to carry out these types of transactions make sure you're using a secure webpage (these start https:// and have the padlock symbol in the address bar).