Being that I am in the Bay Area, and my Aunt and her kids live down in the Santa Cruz area, every once in a while I feel the need to go down there and see them. This time, I even gave them more than a few hours of notice that I was coming so I could see at least one of my cousins, whom complains she never gets to see me.

Anyway, after the usual discussions about my mom, the rest of the family, politics and religion, the conversation drifted into computers. Apparently, my uncle had bought a Linksys WRT54GS and was trying to use his laptop in the living room. He had bought one of those WiFi repeaters that Linksys sells because he was having signal issues. He was worried, rightfully so, about not having any of this secured.

The Linksys WiFi repeater is particularly difficult to configure, since it has no Ethernet port. It's even worse when you are trying to use it with WPA. I eventually gave up using it myself. I found that proper location of the WiFi router, hi-gain antennas, and third-party firmware such as DD-WRT resolved the vast majority of my issues. The main reason for the third party firmware: the ability to adjust your transmit power to at least 50mW. Unfortunately, he has one of the newer WRT54GS units. You know, the ones Linksys neutered so that it is difficult to flash third party firmware on them. Still, antennas and orientation will work wonders.

Later on, I had pulled out my MacBook to show some photos and videos I took with my various Nokia handsets. They really liked the FrontRow interface of the Mac. After we finished with that, I had iStumbler running and picked up a half dozen WiFi access points--most of them on channel 6. Of course their access point was also running on channel 6. I suggested changing to either channel 1 or channel 11. Of course, I suggested killing that WiFi repeater because even I have a problem configuring that thing. I can't imagine my uncle, who is a semi-computer literate person in his 60s, trying to accomplish this.

Then we got onto the whole spyware/virus/cookie thing. Like most people, they are running on their computers as administrator. That's dangerous, even for someone like me who knows what they are doing. It is not a very good idea for most people to operate in that fashion. Of course, Microsoft and application vendors make it difficult to do properly. You should also use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer and/or configure Internet Explorer with safer default settings to reduce your exposure risk.

Because the above was a lot of information, I am going to summarize in bullet form with links to tools and articles.

WiFi Hints

  • Don't buy a repeater. They are almost¬†never¬†easy to configure.
  • Buy a higher-gain antenna set for your router. If your router doesn't have detachable antennas, get a router that does.
  • If you have a Linksys WiFi router, vertically mount the unit on the wall so the antennas and the rest of the unit is a flat plane. This maximizes the router's ability to broadcast. You may need a Linksys SM-1 mounting bracket to accomplish this. I bought them on eBay, but you can get them on and other places.
  • Check what channel your neighors are using. Pick a less-crowded channel. Channel 6 is the default for most routers. Use a tool like¬†NetStumbler¬†(PC) or¬†iStumbler¬†(Mac) to find out what WiFis are in use in your neighborhood. Look for routers in channels 1, 6, and 11. Choose one of these three with the least amount of routers.
  • If you're willing to spend money on new cards¬†and¬†new routers, go get one of the Draft-N WiFi routers and cards (from the same manufacturer). Your range should improve.
  • Configure your router to use WPA. Use a totally random, long, secure passphrase from¬†

Protecting Your Windows XP Box

  • If you haven't already, make sure Service Pack 2 is loaded.
  • Enable the firewall¬†if it's not already.
  • Use¬†Firefox!
  • If you¬†must¬†use Internet Explorer, set your default security settings in Internet Explorer to HIGH. This can be done under Tools > Internet Options > Privacy tab. This will prevent sites you don't explicitly trust from running ActiveX controls, Javascript, or anything like that. You can then click on the Sites button to add the sites you trust. Yes, this takes a little due-diligence on your part, but you really block against unwanted things entering your platform via Internet Explorer.
  • Use Limited user accounts on Windows XP. Each person that uses your PC should have an account that is a Limited user. This should stop¬†most¬†malware from doing anything¬†to¬†the computer aside from possibly deleting user data. It also prevents¬†stupid user mistakes¬†as well. They can still run programs, of course, but they cannot be permanently installed by a Limited user. One¬†administrator account should exist on the computer, but nobody should use it on a regular basis except to install new software or browser plugins. User accounts can be edited by going to Start > Control Panel, then click on User Accounts, and then either create new accounts as appropriate, or editing the existing accounts and clicking on "Change my account type" and setting the type to Limited.

Of course, after my uncle and my cousin saw how sexy my Mac was, how you could also run Windows on it, and how easy it was to use, they were thinking maybe they'd buy a Mac next. Considering the price isn't all that different nowadays, it's worth it to buy a compuer capable of running two operating systems (MacOS and Windows) instead of just one (Windows).

I love the blogosphere. It's a conversation. Lately, it's been interesting. Today, I am responding to Mike Puchol at Whisher on my FON vs Whisher posting:

Thanks for sharing your concerns about Whisher, but I believe your analysis is not accurate in some aspects. First, Whisher works on top of FON, that means, you can share your Fonera with others through Whisher. That a few hackers can open the Fonera and reflash it does -not- mean the thousands of non-technical users out there will be able to do the same.

The Linksys routers that FON originally sent out are, in fact, very easy to hack. Just load new firmware. The LaFonera routers are a little more difficult, from what I've read.  I have no doubt that the FON hackers will find a way to make that process a little easier. I certainly don't need to hack a FON router except as a curiousity--I have more than enough WiFi access points already.

My understanding was that the service required WEP/WPA, which at least my Linksys FON router won't do. I believe the new LaFonera routers support dual SSID and thus would support the possibility of Whisher. I did order a new LaFonera to confirm that for sure.

1. Whisher is a LOT more than a WiFi finder/IM application. It offers controlled WiFi sharing, and more information about the signals present than any other application out there, such as average signal strength (useful for finding the best spot other people connected from) and availability. On top of that, file sharing over WiFi is also available, meaning you can transfer large amounts of data in very short time, and we made it as easy as drag & drop. It offers IM, of course, and this will improve over the next few weeks with some nice extra twists - but the you also get instant presence information about who is connected to the same WiFi as you are. Shall I go on? :) Geolocation of your buddies, local services that can be customized on a per-hostpot basis...

Knowing who is connected to the WiFi and providing some control over that is useful. I believe you get some of that information via the FON portal, but I haven't had any real users come use my access point since I am kind of in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they provide some control, but I doubt it.

Again, the file transfer, while I have no doubt it is fast and easy, is just not a compelling reason. Geolocation would be potentially interesting once a critical mass of Whisher-enabled hotspots is available, but right now, it's just a curiousity.

2. If you don't like to share your AP, then don't. You can still use all the other features that Whisher offers. If you do decide to share, you can do so in a controlled fashion, either you are OK with everyone having access to your WiFi, or you share in buddies-only mode, whereby only those in your buddy list will get your key. If someone wants to have access, they just need to ask you to add them to your buddy list, it's as simple as that. Finally, you can share in private mode, giving only your closest contacts VIP status, so not even your non-VIP buddies will be able to get in. Changing modes is basically clicking on a button - that is it, all done from the client.

Granular sharing is good, something FON lacks. However, I tend to either want to share with everyone or nobody. It's a much easier decision to make, and doesn't require software.

If you are worried about segregating your network from the public one, then just install a router with DD-WRT, which provides dual SSIDs, one you can share with Whisher in private mode, and the other in public mode. We have implemented a 'master' function, which is not yet available in the client, which lets you 'pool' access points, so that people connecting to any pooled node will join the same chatroom, have presence information, etc. about anyone connected on any of the other nodes. This way you could control both SSIDs with the client transparently. If you think FON is the only way to securely share WiFi, your analysis is not complete.

Actually, FON isn't exactly sure either. Dual SSIDs, which supposedly the latest LaFoneras support as well as DD-WRT firmware on Links devices, isn't the most secure either. In theory, if you somehow compromise the access point, you could potentially hop between networks. Even though the risk is fairly small, I don't personally take it. I run two physically different access points--one with FON and one without. In fact, I plug nothing into the FON access point except for the occasional test PC. I have them connected to different Internet connections as well. Even if someone does compromise the access point, there's nothing there for anyone to find.

3. Our business model is based on local & premium services, advertising, and other revenue paths we have identified. We don't plan to charge for the client, or resell access. The are many incentives for using Whisher, from the philanthropist thought of free WiFi, to wanting to create a closed network with your friends & family, and making it easy to manage.

I do have to agree that making it easy to manage a closed network of WiFis is kind of a neat idea. Whether or not other people will think it's a good idea remains to be seen.

You may want to work on creating a page or some documentation explaining to people how to more securely share their WiFi, and what place Whisher serves in that. A lot of people don't understand what WPA is and why using WEP or no encryption at all is an exceedingly bad idea (NEVER suggest WEP, always suggest WPA). I had to educate a neighbor about this recently as I went over to her house to help with with an unrelated issue. She had no idea that people could be using her network without her knowledge!

You can do "Free" WiFi with FON as well. All you have to do is create a local login and password in your FON portal and add that information to your splash page. Then anyone can use it.

In any case, I will be watching Whisher. I will probably load it up on a PC and make one of my routers Whisher-enabled, just because I'm a nice guy. Whether or not I will want to keep the client on at all times remains to be seen.

Ran across this. Oh man this looks like an interesting device.

ZTE’s Home Gateway H110 comes standard with an Ethernet and PCMCIA Card Slot for Broadband access [via EVDO/HSDPA], with multiple LAN interfaces including four (4) Ethernet, two (2) FXS, one (1) FXO and (2) USB ports. In addition the H110 supports Bluetooth, Print and File Sharing, multiple VPN/VLAN support, and offers a superior user experience with innovative QoS, and a feature rich GUI. Whether you are at home or on the road, whether it is network computing, entertainment, Internet safety, or voice communication, the H110 Home Gateway provides you the total communication solution.

This could prove to be quite an interesting device. It is a little out of my price range, but it does combine several useful features into a tiny little box, which makes it worth considering.

A blog posting from Dan York reminded me that I need to sign up for my CISSP class so that I can go for that lovely CISSP certification in the first half. His post clearly highlighted some of the issues one must go through to not only get, but maintain the certification. All of those hoops are what sets the CISSP apart from other certifications.

My career in the computer security industry goes back to my first job out of school where I worked at a recruiting firm and was their system administrator. We also began to sell TIS Gauntlet, did an install, and learned the ropes. Through that company, I found a job working for a Check Point reseller and I began to support FireWall-1. A website dedicated to FireWall-1 and two books later, I got knee deep in security.

Even though I don't directly support FireWall-1 these days (now it's called VPN-1 Pro--Check Point always did like renaming their product every couple of years), I work with some other security products. One of the things I do as part of my job is analyze either customer-reported or internally-reported security issues and determine what, if anything, needs to be done about it. I play a large role in writing and publishing the actual customer advisory.