McAfee Wireless Home Network Security

Home wireless users, and the companies they work for, will find peace of mind thanks to this easy-to-use security pacakge.

August 29, 2005

6 Min Read
Network Computing logo

Simple Setup

Setting up McAfee Wireless Home Network Security is extremely fast and easy. After the installer runs, the product attempts to detect your wireless LAN. If it detects an unprotected wireless network, it asks you if you want to secure it. Clicking "Yes" begins the process, which can take several minutes on a slower computer.

If you've changed the default password on the router, you'll be prompted to enter it so that the software can communicate with the hardware. And, of course, using a non-default password is a good idea. Another caution is that, if your neighbors use the same router using the same default SSID as yours, you could inadvertently use Home Network Security to secure their network.

This, of course, is not the software's fault. Still, it's a good reminder that you should choose a non-default SSID if your router, which will prevent you from accidentally securing your neighbor's router.

Powerful Security Perhaps the product's biggest strength of McAfee Wireless Home Network Security is its ease of use, a vitally important consideration for a home product.

The McAfee system defaults to WEP encryption, which is the least secure type of protection. The rationale behind this is that not all equipment supports the stronger WPA or WPA2, particularly older equipment. It is easy, however, to change to one of the stronger types of encryption if your equipment supports it.

McAfee secures your network primarily with strongly-generated keys. The first wireless node to connect to a router using the software generates a list of keys and posts the first key to the router using HTTP POST. Subsequent workstations that have the McAfee software is installed essentially become trusted clients of the initial workstation. Those subsequent workstations retrieve those keys from the initial workstation, which then grants access to the network. The keys rotate every three hours that a secured station is online.

Overall, this is a laudably strong system, but one caution is in order. If you are securing a network that doesn't already use encryption, you should rotate the key immediately after deploying this system. That's because the initial key is sent in the clear. Rotating the key manually is simple, requiring a simple click of the mouse.

In practice, the rotation process is invisible. Keys rotate behind the scenes mostly unnoticed, although you will see a slight hiccup in network availability when the key changes, and McAfee's control center pops up an alert. Because some network applications, like gaming or streaming media, depend on uninterrupted network connectivity, McAfee's software also allows you to suspend key rotation with a click of the mouse.McAfee claims support for most popular brands of wireless network adapters and routers, including Linksys, Netgear, Belkin and D-Link. In practice, I had some difficulty with Netgear routers and cards; Wireless Home Network Security asked me to upgrade the router to the latest firmware, which I did to no avail. A Linksys router and Wi-Fi cards from Linksys and Belkin worked fine.

Before buying, however, I suggest reviewing McAfee's Web site to make sure that your router -- or any prospective future hardware purchase -- is compatible before you use the software. McAfee maintains a compatibility list compatibility list and says it will be adding more equipment to the list over time. At this writing, the list includes 12 products from Linksys, Netgear, D-Link, Motorola and Belkin. However, McAfee is still adding models to this list.

Lingering Concerns

While it is easy to use and is secure, there are still a few concerns with McAfee Wireless Home Network Security.

The first is that the key rotation period is hard coded at three hours. This is more than adequate for WPA, especially given the strong keys that McAfee uses, but it seems a touch short for WEP, which can be cracked in less than that amount of time. Still, the fact that keys are rotating in the first place, however, mitigates that concern somewhat; slow rotation is better than no rotation.The fact that the product may require you to update router firmware brings up the second problem: Requiring users to apply firmware and driver updates seriously impacts the product's ease-of-use. Many people who didn't apply router-based security in the first place could probably have a difficult time updating the firmware on that same router. Since ease-of-use is a paramount goal of this security products for the home, this could be a major concern.

In Short

McAfee Wireless Home Network Security

$49.99. McAfee, (866) 727-7564, (212) 825-9100.

A final issue is that the product is only for Windows. If you want to use McAfee Wireless Home Network Security on a mixed network, you can, but you lose what is one of the product's strongest features, the automatic key rotation. With a headless device like a TiVo, or a handheld like a PocketPC, or a Macintosh or Linux wireless client, you're limited to using a single key.

You can work around that to some extent by entering McAfee's "Suspend" mode, which suspends the key rotation, and entering the current key by hand into your other devices. When you want to change the key, you re-enable rotation on the Windows PC and suspend it again, which forces key rotation. I suspect this is why, in general, people don't change their security keys often enough; changing keys on six or seven different wireless devices can be time-consuming. Hopefully, McAfee will consider beefing up support for non-Windows-based systems in the future.Final Thoughts

McAfee Wireless Home Network Security definitely fills an important need. As it stands, it's suitable primarily for home users -- as the product's name implies -- who have security concerns but who won't or can't configure their wireless equipment.

It could also fill a hole in corporate I.T. departments, securing equipment that travels between office and home, which means no more worrying, for instance, about the CFO taking the company financial documents home to an unsecured wireless network. Even more technically-minded users could benefit from the forced key rotation, assuming that they're on Windows-only networks.

Without doubt, McAfee Wireless Home Network Security provides strong security that is easy to deploy. But some would argue that more traditional methods of wireless security, like SSID hiding and MAC address filtering (which McAfee claims are cosmetic protection) combined with a strong WPA key arguably provide even stronger protection.

However, this product isn't for those who are comfortable configuring their own router and rotate their own keys. Rather, it's for people who frown in puzzlement when you ask if they're hiding their SSID, or who say "But I use Windows," when you ask for their MAC address. For those people and, potentially, for the organizations they work for, McAfee Wireless Home Network Security provides peace of mind. And that can't possibly be bad.0

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights