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WiFi users guard their own networks, happy to use others


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Raise your hand if you've ever tried to connect to a neighbor's WiFi network in an emergency (or even by accident). If we were in the same place, about a third of the room would have their hands up, according to a survey conducted by wireless industry group Wi-Fi Alliance. This is despite the fact that many of you know to keep your own networks locked down—so much so that even giving out your password to friends feels like a risky venture.

Wi-Fi Alliance interviewed 1,054 Americans over the age of 18 about their WiFi practices during the month of December 2010 and found that 32 percent tried to connect to a WiFi network that wasn't theirs. That's up from just 18 percent in December of 2008, showing that in just two years, the number of people trolling for open WiFi networks almost doubled. This is undoubtedly thanks to the growing popularity of laptops and mobile devices that can connect to WiFi—now, you can connect to other people's networks even when you're out and about, and not just at home.

When managing their own networks though, 40 percent of survey respondents said that they would be more likely to trust someone with a key to their homes than the password to their WiFi access points. Even crazier: more than a quarter said that sharing their WiFi password felt more personal than sharing a toothbrush. (Don't get me wrong, I don't like to give out my WiFi password either. But no one shares my toothbrush—ever.)

Wi-Fi Alliance seems to think that these two behaviors—trying to get onto other people's networks, but not letting others onto their own networks—are contradictory, likely because joining someone else's network increases the possibility of exposing your own surfing habits to strangers. Why would you so fiercely protect your own network if you're going to be joining others willy-nilly?

"Most consumers know that leaving their WiFi network open is not a good thing, but the reality is that many have not taken the steps to protect themselves," Wi-Fi Alliance marketing director Kelly Davis-Felner said in a statement. "Most public hotspots leave security protections turned off, so while connecting to a public WiFi hotspot is great for general internet surfing, users should not transmit sensitive data, such as bank account login information."

When using a device that might connect to a WiFi network, Wi-Fi Alliance says to turn off the device's ability to auto-connect so that you always make a conscious decision to join a network that you're familiar with. And when managing your own network, the group advises WiFi users to implement WPA2 protections on their own networks and use strong passwords—at least eight characters with a mixture of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. No dictionary words!

"Much like the seatbelts in your car, [WiFi security] won't protect you unless you use it," Felner warned.

If you want to stay extra-obscure, you could also change the settings on your router so that it doesn't even broadcast the SSID to other users. Bonus security points go to the people who require each device's MAC address to be approved on the network before they can connect, but those people lose friend points for making things so tedious. Share the love, man!

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