Attention, well-meaning family members: Nerds are not your holiday tech support. Sure, we twitch (more than) a little bit when we use operating systems that haven't been updated in months, and firmware that's just waiting for a patch. But we're not home for that. No, we're here for a little too much booze and to cast side eye at that one cousin who still won't let go of that thing.
Ah, the holidays.
There is, however, one thing that we should help you out with. And let's do one better. We're going to help you learn to help yourself.
We're going to venture into the deep, dark world of your wireless router. It's scary, I know. But it's important. And, actually, it just looks scary. It's actually relatively easy to keep things up to date.
Let's take a look at some high-level stuff here.
First: Wait? What? WHY!?!?!
Look, your router is important. It's not just the thing that serves up the Wi-Fis. It's also the thing that serves as your first (and for most folks, only) line of defense. You don't want exploits wide open in this thing. Hear about the "KRACK" vulnerability that affects ALL Wi-Fi?
Yeah. It's a big deal. So you need to make sure your stuff's updated.
And while we're at it, we're going to look at a couple other best practices. It's easy.
OK, now first: Get into your router
If you're lucky, you've got a newer router that has some sort of software application makes your router easy to adjust. Apple's AirPort routers can be controlled from a computer. Google Wifi works from an app on your phone. (I've used both, and they're great.) The Netgear router I'm currently using has a desktop app as well as a mobile app.
So first, hunt around and see if there's an app for your router.
If not, there's a pretty easy way to get in. Start by typing this into your internet browser:
That's it. Well, that's probably it. For many routers, this is the default address to communicate with it. (If yours doesn't return some sort of scary-looking router page, hit up Le Google for instructions on how to log in to yours.)
Now you should be challenged by a username and password. This will vary a bit by the manufacturer, but a lot of the time the username is "admin" and the password is blank. Or maybe it's something else. It should be listed in the instruction manual, or just hunt around on the internet again.
Note that this is a username and password that just gets you into your router. It's different than the name of your wireless network (that's called an SSID), and the password you use to get online.
Once you're in, you'll be looking at something that basically is a web page, full of links and fields and buttons and stuff. Only instead of talking with a website, you're communicating with your router's settings. Got it?
Let's assume you've managed all this. What to do now?
Update your router's firmware
OK. Deep breath here. The most important thing you can do (of the several most important things you'll want to do here) is to update the firmware on your router.
Too often this is hidden away on some "Advanced" page of your router's settings. But maybe you've gotten lucky and there's a button for it on the first page. (Or, ya know, crack open that instruction manual again, or just hit Google for where to find it.)
If you're really lucky your router will have some sort of update mechanism. (And if you're REALLY lucky it'll do it automatically, or at least in an app.) Again, this varies wildly by manufacturer. Apple does it through the OS, Google Wifi does it automatically — you never have to touch a thing — and my Netgear router has a quick and easy button you can hit.
If you're not among the chosen ones, you might have to download a file and then upload it to your router for the update to happen. It's no worse than uploading a picture to Facebook, though.
You got this. Again, hit the instructions, and Google is your friend. But this one's important.
Update your router.
Check your wireless network security
OK. Now it's time to look at your wireless network settings. You'll want something that talks about the SSID and password. (That's the name of your network, and the password you use to connect to it.)
There's a decent chance that you'll still have the boring old ROUTER137BG 2.4GHz network name that came with your router. You don't have to change it to something pithy like "FBI Surveillance Van" or "We can hear you through the walls," but you probably should change it to something other than the default. Because that gives someone a clue as to your router's default login username and password. (Again, that's why you should change those things, too. The less identifiable the information, the better.)
But you absolutely must have a password on your network. That's not negotiable — otherwise, anyone can just wander by and do anything they want with your internet. That's not good.
This doesn't have to be some awful password that you'll never remember, or that'll make someone cringe to type in if they come over. It just needs to be a basic front-door lock is all.
And you absolutely must be using WPA-2 security. You should see it as an option in the settings. And while chances are you're using it if you've got a relatively new router, this is still something you should check, just in case. WPA2 - Good. WEP - BAD.
By the way: that username and password you used to log on to your router? Now would be a fine time to change them. Because if you don't, pretty much any bored kid wondering within sight of your network can get into things and mess you up.
What about guest networks?
Look, guest networks in and of themselves are not evil. The idea is to have an easy way for visitors to get online, without giving them unfettered access to your full network, and all the things that are attached to it.
So by all means, hop into your settings and turn on a guest network if you're having a party. Password, no password — your call.
But be sure to turn the guest network OFF once you're done with it. Otherwise, it's essentially like leaving a side door to your house cracked open all the time. Sure, it's possible nobody will stumble in. But why take the chance?
You're a hax0r now!
Congratulations. If you've made it through these basic things, you've accomplished what some of us do for fun. (Crazy, I know.)
But look at it like this: This is the most basic of network security. It's a little complicated, yeah. But it's something everyone should know.
And now you can show off to your nerd family members that you're not quite as square as they think you are. (That's something the kids still say, right?)
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