Q

How to find an SSID and identify neighboring WLANs

Wireless network expert Lisa Phifer explains what an SSID is and how to identify and differentiate between neighboring WLAN identifiers in this expert response.

How can I find out what my Internet wireless SSID is?

A wireless service set identifier (SSID) is simply the name given to each Wi-Fi network. That name is intended to let users connect to their own network instead of other networks owned by their neighbors or nearby businesses.

Most wireless routers and access points are shipped with default SSIDs; see this list of common SSID values. For example, "linksys" is extremely common because many consumers just plug in their brand new Cisco Linksys routers without changing this factory-default SSID. This practice misleads users into accidentally connecting to the wrong wireless network -- for example, if you and your neighbor both own Cisco Linksys routers, you might end up connected to your neighbor's wireless network instead of your own.

Over the past few years, many wireless routers have started to ship with randomly-generated default SSIDs -- especially those that support Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), a quick and easy way to set up WPA2-PSK security by entering the same PIN or pushing a button on both your router and a client you want to connect to your network. This practice not only improves overall WLAN security, but prevents those accidental connections that happened with default SSIDs.

More on hiding your SSID

To learn more about why trying to hide your wireless network's SSID is futile, read Lisa's Mobility Loop post, "SSID broadcasts and other security legends."

However, randomly-generated SSIDs can be harder for consumers to identify. You can't just read your product manual to find the default SSID value -- but you can go to the configuration page of your router and look for the configured wireless SSID value. (Visit your vendor's support site to download your router's manual.) If you are trying to find the SSID of a wireless network that you don't have permission to configure, start by observing nearby "available wireless network" names using Windows XP or any wireless client. The closer you are to the network, the stronger the signal associated with that name.

Some wireless network administrators hide SSIDs to discourage outsider connections. In that case, you may see an "available wireless network" without a name. But those SSID values are not truly hidden; they can be easily obtained by running or many other Wi-Fi network discovery tools.

This was first published in March 2009

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