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Your Wireless SSID: Can You Hide It From Hackers?
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Your Wireless SSID: Can you hide it from Hackers?

If you’re anything like me, then you take wireless security seriously. When I got my first router (802.11b), I dove into all the features and options it had. At this time in my life I worked in Underwater Acoustics and hadn’t yet begun my career in Network Management and Security. So, being a little green around the edges, I decided to turn on all the security features I could find. WEP? Check. MAC filtering? Check. Hidden SSID? Wait what is this? What’s a SSID and why would I want to hide it?

Simply put, your SSID, or Service Set Identifier, is the name that identifies your 802.11 wireless LAN. Typically from the factory your router will have a default name such as Linksys832, or Netgear41283 or something similar. Changing this setting in your router will set it with a unique name that you will use to refer to it from all of your wireless access points (including laptops). Most people will set their SSID to something they will remember. It’s probably a good idea to make the SSID something that doesn’t directly identify with the owner (i.e. BobsRouter), since with almost zero effort anyone can figure out the source of the broadcast SSID. Granted, a publicly obscure name won’t stop even a novice hacker, but why put that out there for everyone in your neighborhood to know?

Now that we have or SSID we have another option: “Broadcast SSID” in our router security settings (or something similar (hide SSID, Advertise SSID, etc.). On the surface, one would think, “Hey! If I hide my SSID no one can find my network! Now it’s Hacker-proof!” That’s what I initially thought. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. True, no one can see your network pop up in their list of available networks, but let’s dig a little deeper into what’s going on here.

Clients can do two things when looking for a wireless network to join. They can broadcast a probe request (Hey! Is anyone there?) or a targeted probe request (Hey you! Are you there?) when searching for a network to associate with. Hiding your SSID will require the access point to use the second method to attempt to authenticate with the router. Sounds secure, no? It would require me to know your router’s name to even begin to authenticate with it. For the average home user in an average neighborhood with zero chance of a hacking attempt, it would be secure. But who lives in those neighborhoods? There is always a chance that someone is targeting you, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Now here’s the reason that this gives a false sense of security: the SSID is broadcast in cleartext. That means if you have your SSID hidden, any access point will have to send the SSID in cleartext to attempt to negotiate with it. This means that anyone with a passive scanner looking for targeted probe request directed at an access point will be able to pick up the SSID with almost no effort. People have been known to drive through neighborhoods with a laptop actively looking for broadcast SSIDs while also passively scanning for router authentication attempts to find the hidden networks (also called wardriving). As you can see, if you’re hiding your SSID in an attempt to deter hackers you might have fallen into a false sense of security.

It’s essentially impossible with current 802.11 technology to guarantee that you’re network will be hidden from a determined hacker. However, all is not lost. Even if we can’t hide our wireless networks from a determined hacking attempt, there are several steps that can be taken to ensure that hackers don’t gain access to our networks even if they have our SSID. We’ll discuss a few of these concepts in my next security article.


Street Talk

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