How Secure Is a Wireless Computer Network?

Computer in dark office, security alert on screen
Getty Images/Dimitri Otis

Unfortunately, no computer network is truly secure. It's always theoretically possible for eavesdroppers to view or "snoop" the traffic on any network, and it's often possible to add or "inject" unwelcome traffic as well. However, some networks are built and managed much more securely than others. For both wired and wireless networks alike, the real question to answer becomes - is it secure enough?

Wireless networks pose an additional security challenge compared to wired networks. Whereas wired networks send electrical signals or pulses of light through cable, wireless radio signals propagate through the air and are naturally easier to intercept. Signals from most wireless local area networks (WLANs) pass through exterior walls and into nearby streets or parking lots.

Network engineers and other technology experts have closely scrutinized wireless network security because of the open-air nature of wireless communications. The practice of wardriving, for example, exposed the vulnerabilities of home WLANs and accelerated the pace of security technology advances in home wireless equipment.

Overall, conventional wisdom holds that wireless networks are now secure enough to use in the vast majority of homes, and many businesses. Security features like WPA2 can scramble or encrypt network traffic so that its contents can not easily be deciphered by snoopers. Likewise, wireless network routers and wireless access points (APs) incorporate access control features such as MAC address filtering that deny requests from unwanted clients.

Obviously every home or business must determine for themselves the level of risk they are comfortable in taking when implementing a wireless network. The better a wireless network is administered, the more secure it becomes. However, the only truly secure network is the one never built!