Last updateFri, 10 Jun 2016 6am

Wi-fi passwords: putting lipstick on a pig

One day an octogenarian client of mine exploded: “Get rid of all these passwords!  I can’t cope with this any longer!” 

I explained to her that her bank was not prepared to let her do that.  “They used’ta know me by name when I went in there.  I didn’t need to remember a password.  Take ‘em all off!!  I don’t want any more passwords anywhere!”  Suffice it to say that I sometimes receive orders from clients that I cannot satisfy.

With that as background it is easier to understand why I have been known to tell my clients that having a password on their Wi-fi network is not absolutely a necessity.  Of course a selfish motivation here is my wanting to spare myself those late night phone calls such as “Charles, my daughter’s visiting and wants to use the Wi-fi.  What’s my password?”

The fact of the matter is that passwords on Wi-fi networks are really a joke because the existence of a password does not provide the security most users think it does.  A good example is the coffee shop.  If you need a password there it is often just to verify you paid for a cup of coffee today; that password provides no other security and absolutely provides no protection against other coffee-drinkers being able to snoop your traffic while you are connected to that public network.

Even secured and encrypted wireless networks are vulnerable to having security easily compromised when passwords are shared.  Microsoft tacitly acknowledges this with their new “Wi-fi Sense” feature that automatically shares all your Wi-fi passwords with everyone in your address book and all your social network friends.  You knew Microsoft was doing that, right?  I suppose it is convenient that you have all your friend’s passwords and all of them have yours, and Microsoft has everyone’s passwords; but that is the antithesis of secure.

So when I suggest to clients that having their Wi-fi network secured with a password is not essential, part of the reason for that is to serve as a reminder that Wi-fi is inherently insecure.  Adding a password is like putting lipstick on a pig.  Still, there are times a password is useful, such as for keeping the sidewalk clean.

A client told me of an experience when neighborhood kids were poaching off an open Wi-fi signal.  That was not a seen as a problem because letting the kids use a little free Wi-fi cost the homeowner nothing, and the kids did not seem to present any serious security risks (and if they did, a password would not have stopped them).  But then the inconsiderate litterbugs started leaving behind empty bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette buts, etc.  That was reason enough for the homeowner to put a password on their Wi-fi.

Now the kids have to go elsewhere, or possibly one of them knows someone who is Facebook friends with the homeowner and as a friend of a friend they might get the new password from Microsoft.  So much for security.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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