What is a wireless network key?

Written by christopher capelle
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What is a wireless network key?
You can easily secure your wireless router. (Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

A wireless network key is a security feature that prevents unauthorised users from accessing a wireless network. It can be a simple password or a self-generated combination of digits and letters. A good number of wireless networks are still left unprotected, leaving them vulnerable to hackers and data thieves. Most home routers allow users to easily configure a high degree of wireless security, so there is no excuse for having an open network.

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Significance

Wireless networks are now ubiquitous, and many homes incorporate a wireless network into their infrastructure. Because an unprotected network is an unlocked virtual door, anybody within range can piggyback onto the network undetected. An intruder's activity can range from benign (using your network for Web surfing and e-mail) to virtual mischief (downloading large files) to downright criminal activity (accessing personal data on your computer and stealing passwords and financial information).

Types

There are many types of wireless security scenarios to consider when configuring a wireless network. The most common types for home and office use are WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). Each of these types has multiple options and different bits (which enhances security of the wireless network). There is also an entire spectrum of more complex, enterprise-wide wireless security standards, but most of these are well beyond the needs and abilities of the average computer user.

Features

The wireless router (or access point) is where the security of the wireless network is configured. Here, the administrator sets the security parameters, including user access, firewall configurations and access limits. Then the key is entered by each computer that accesses the wireless network. For a more secure network, the network key should be entered into the user’s computer by the administrator, and not given to the end user.

Warning

A lost or forgotten wireless network key can be a problem, particularly on a network with many users and many wireless access points and repeaters. Resetting a single router in a home or small office situation is a slightly annoying yet simple enough process, but when you’re dealing with more than four or five end users, this can become a time-consuming issue. A good network administrator should have the router’s configuration backed up and ready to transfer to a new router in the event of a lost password or router hardware failure.

Expert Insight

The most secure type of wireless network key is one that consists of randomly generated letters and numbers. However, because of the nature of this type of network key, it’s hard for users to remember it. A screen shot of the router’s configuration page can be a handy tool, but leaving it in an easy-to-find place in your computer work area will compromise your network’s security, as a thief or unauthorised user would be able to access the network with this information.

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