Securing the Area

With any computer connected to the Internet, there's always a chance that a hacker or virus can find a way in. And when that computer is networked to others in the house, they all become vulnerable. Many recent home gateways alleviate much of this concern by including firewall software that acts as an electronic sentry between the local network and the Internet to prevent outsiders from stealing your credit card number or accessing personal information, and to stop viruses from erasing files and eating up memory.

Wireless networks are more difficult to protect because the electronic chatter between devices can be easily intercepted with a simple antenna up to 150 feet away. But interception is not the same as infiltration, says Greg Joswiak, the senior director of portables product marketing at Apple Computer. Because each network card is encoded with a unique address and because the signal it sends out is encrypted, he says, electronic eavesdroppers can't spy on your e-mail or seize control of your computer, even if they were to pick up that signal. Joswiak acknowledges that a determined and sophisticated hacker might be able to overcome these protections, but he says the same is true of any firewall in a wired network.

Still, wireless-home-network owner Jeff Herbst admits that he's slightly uneasy about the ability of outsiders to pluck his network's transmissions from the air. He plans to reduce that risk by adding passwords to both of his computers. And he keeps sensitive information about family finances off the air entirely by storing it on his desktop computer. It's linked to his network gateway by wires, rather than through radio waves.

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