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Tech-Friendly: So what if Google knows all my Wi-Fi passwords?

September 18, 2013

By Paul Gorski

Computerworld.com columnist Michael Horowitz claims “Google knows nearly every Wi-Fi password in the world” in his “Defensive Computing” column at http://blogs.computerworld.com/android/22806/google-knows-nearly-every-wi-fi-password-world. Horowitz cites a “feature” of Google’s Android smartphone and tablet OS that automatically backs up the passwords we use to access Wi-Fi, posing a potential security threat. Google can then read these passwords and send these back to you, in plain text, unencrypted.

Horowitz points out: “When it comes to Wi-Fi, the NSA, CIA and FBI may not need hackers and cryptographers. … If Android devices are offering up your secrets, WPA2 encryption and a long random password offer no protection.”

Horowitz also details a long list of similar articles describing how our passwords and our communications are no longer private. I’ve written previously about Google’s disregard for e-mail privacy (http://rockrivertimes.com/2013/08/21/tech-friendly-google-to-court-gmail-users-should-not-expect-privacy/).

So what if Google knows my Wi-Fi passwords and reads my e-mails? Unfortunately, many people use the same password for everything. If someone knows your home Wi-Fi password (or e-mail password), they may know your online banking and investment accounts passwords. Storing passwords online also unnecessarily exposes those passwords to potential hacker attacks.

What can you do about it? You could disable the “Back up my settings” or “Back up my data” option on your Android smartphone, but you’ll also be disabling some other features. See your phone user guide for details. Once that is done, change your Wi-Fi password.

As a general rule, you should keep different passwords for your different accounts, Wi-Fi, e-mail, banking and more, and you should change all of your passwords at least twice per year. You should also avoid sending passwords and sensitive account information in e-mails.

You wouldn’t hand over the keys to your house or car to a perfect stranger, so take steps to keep the “keys” to your electronic life private and secure.

Paul Gorski (www.paulgorski.com) has been a technology manager nearly 20 years, specializing in workflow solutions for printing, publishing and advertising computer users. Originally destined to be a chemist, his interest in computers began in college when he wrote a program to analyze data from lab instruments he hard-wired to the back of an Apple IIe.

From the Sept. 18-24, 2013, issue

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