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Some Internet Loopholes You May Need To Plug

 

A couple of years ago I wrote about the ups and downs of wireless Internet in your home, however it's a topic that I feel is too important to not revisit on a regular basis. In that previous article, I warned that if you have recently purchased a wireless router so that you can enjoy the convenience of doing some work at home on the sofa or so the kids can play interactive games on their Xbox 360 without running wires to the family room, you may have inadvertently opened an easily accessed portal for other Internet activities.

 

The good news is more people are securing their routers and putting passwords in place on their Internet connections. Doing so prevents you becoming an unwitting accomplice in distributing pornographic emails or downloading illegal movies. These things, and many other privacy and financial concerns, can happen if your wireless Internet connection is unsecured. Your neighbor or even someone parked in front of your home would be able to use your connection for possible inappropriate and even illegal activities.

 

It's also important to recognize that your "unlimited" Internet connection isn't the all-you-can-eat buffet you may think it is. Almost all Internet service providers have a limit buried in the fine print of your service agreement. If you exceed this limit, your service may be slowed down, cut off or you might incur additional charges. That's why even if you intentionally decide to share your connection with the apartment next door, you are opening yourself up to various liability issues.

 

Assuming you have activated the encryption and password capabilities on your new wireless router, there are a few other loopholes that may allow the use of either your Internet connection or Internet enabled devices in your home in ways you didn't intend.

 

Getting back to the neighbors, you will want to check to see their connection is secured. If you have an open connection next door that reaches into your home, many barriers and controls that you have tried to enable to keep your kids safe online might be defeated. For example, if you have determined the PlayStation 3 won't be able to connect online, and the only method you have used to ensure this is to not make your wireless password available, an open connection next door totally defeats this plan.

 

The situation is made worse with the plethora of portable Internet connected devices your kids may be carrying in their pockets. If someone in your family has purchased a flashy iTouch music player to replace their old iPod, you need to know this device is virtually as capable on the Internet as a full-blown computer. It's web browser is capable of surfing to any website -- including many you may be very concerned about. If you haven't taken actions to either disable the browser, or put filtering in place on the device, you may have a child or teen using this unit in ways you wouldn't approve. As well, simply denying your wireless password won't help in the least if there are other open connections in your neighborhood. (Obviously, these pocket surfers also can easily be carried to a location with an open connection.)

 

Another little device that is catching parents by surprise is the Nintendo DSi. It's the new replacement for the Nintendo DS and DS Lite, an extremely popular portable game system that's been around since 2004. Due to its wide selection of games that appeal to young children, the original "DS" has become extremely popular with the preteen crowd. And while the DS included wireless networking capabilities, its connectivity was limited to shared gameplay between other DS units in the same room.

 

However the new DSi, which looks very similar to the older DS and DS Lite, adds a very important feature -- a new web browser that's available through a simple download. Once a young user figures out how to install it (a very easy task) the DSi is a capable Internet browsing device. It can't do all the tricks the aforementioned iTouch can, but it most certainly can visit websites that virtually any parent of an 8-year-old would not want him or her seeing. Again, this function can be disabled, but only if you know about this important capability of the DSi. And even if your child doesn't know your home's wireless password, he or she can still surf the net through any open Wi-Fi connection. (Note that Nintendo does offer a free filtering service for the DSi browser. Click this link and scroll down to the middle of the page for the setup instructions.)

 

So how do you know if there are open wireless opportunities in your home? The easiest way is to use one of these portable units. On the iTouch, choose "Settings" then "Wi-Fi." After a moment a list of wireless networks will appear. Yours should be on the list, and if you have previously protected your Internet connection, a lock icon should appear beside your network. However, if there are any other networks on the list without a lock icon, those ones are wide open for anyone to use.

 

Because wireless networks have limited range, try this test in a couple of places within your home -- especially in your kids' bedrooms. You may be able to reach networks in one part of your home that you can't in others. For instance, typically a top storey of a home will receive better reception of more networks.

 

To do the same test on a Nintendo DSi, click the wrench icon under system settings. On the next screen scroll over to page 3 using the right arrow. Now choose "Connection Settings" and on the next screen click the button beside Connection 1, 2 or 3. Finally you will see a screen with a button that reads, "Search for an Access Point." Now you should see a list of wireless connections available to you. Again, yours should be on the list. If there is a closed lock beside your connection's name, your Internet is secured. Now check to see if there are any other connections that do not have this lock. If so, it may be possible for your kids to make use of someone else's Internet connection.

 

So what do you do if your neighbor's Internet is open to all? First, it's often difficult to determine whose connection you are looking at. For privacy reasons, I highly recommend you do NOT use your name to identify your own Internet connection, however many people do. If you see a name of someone you recognize, then it's easy to know to whom the connection belongs. Depending on your relationship with them, you may want to simply ask them if they would like help securing their Internet (assuming you know how to do that). At the very least, you may want to let them know they are putting themselves at risk by keeping their connection open.

 

Obviously some people won't be comfortable approaching the guy next door and suggesting he change the settings on his wireless router. If that's your situation, you can still help secure many of your kid's devices through the parental controls. For example, on the Nintendo DSi, if you enable the parental controls and choose a PIN that only you know, young users will not be able to access the Internet settings. That means it should be impossible to connect to any other network expect for yours. If you were visiting your high-tech Grandma, and they wanted to connect to her wireless Internet, you would have to enter the PIN and select the new network.

 

(The iTouch offers similar parental controls that, when activated, should not allow the unit to connect to other networks.)

 

In the end, I may have left you convinced you don't want any of these "toys" in your home. Of course, that is another option that your family may consider. However, depending on your technical expertise, a little time spent putting the proper technical restrictions in place can help alleviate many of the issues of concern.

 

Rod Gustafson

 


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.


Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org


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