What is SSID?

We look at what SSID is and how it is used to connect devices to the internet

wireless router

When joining a wireless network from a tablet, smartphone, or laptop, you’ll usually be given a list of options to connect to. These are called ‘service set identifiers’ (SSIDs) and can either be a customised moniker created by its owners or a default label given by a manufacturer to the network.

When it comes to default SSIDs, they usually follow a distinct pattern that is unique to their manufacturer. For example, Virgin Media uses the prefix “VM” at the start of its SSIDs, which is followed by a group of numbers, like VM-12345 for instance. BT and Sky have similar SSIDs too and a range of providers, like Netgear, also do the same with the devices they sell to consumers.

If you want to customise your own SSID and change it from a random set of numbers and letters to something more memorable, you’ll have to access your router's web-based admin settings. However, if you have more than one network in a building, such as an employee Wi-Fi and a guest one, you will probably want to keep them separate which means they will need different names to keep it clear which is which.

Key features of an SSID

Regardless of the type of router you're using, or its manufacturer, SSIDs will typically contain up to 32 case-sensitive characters, including numbers, letters, and special characters like underscores and dashes. Fortunately, there's no minimum limit on an SSID, so you can essentially name it anything you like. However, best practice dictates that you make it as unique as possible to make it stand out.

That's if you decide to even change the SSID in the first place, as routers will typically come with sensible monikers that relate to the manufacturer or ISP – these are printed on the side of the router, or provided separately on a sticker. It's here you'll also find the password to access the Wi-Fi, as well as the username and password for accessing the admin console, which grants access to the router's configuration settings and SSID options.

How devices use SSID to connect to the internet

Whenever you set up a connected device for the first time, or when attempting to connect to a new network, you will be asked to configure your access to the internet. You'll be typically prompted to scan for any available networks in your immediate vicinity, at which point you can pick the most relevant to your needs, whether that's a personal home Wi-Fi or a business network.

Networks will either appear as open or locked. Open networks are free of immediate authentication checks and will let you connect without issue, although these will usually then ask you for registration information in a browser window. Locked networks, indicated by the padlock symbol next to the SSID, will require you to input a password as you try to connect.

However, this list of available networks will only show those that have been configured to publicly display their SSID or personalised name. To access any hidden networks you will need to input their SSID or name manually, alongside the password if necessary. To prevent a network from displaying on the list of available connections, you will need to choose 'hidden' or 'disable SSID' in the router's settings.

Once your device is connected to a network, you can save its details and connect automatically each time you enable Wi-Fi.

SSID security

SSID is commonly used by most wireless networks globally. However, that doesn't mean that it's safe. In fact, it's considered to be one of the least secure ways of connecting to a network. One common problem with SSID is that even if you select the option to have it hidden from other Wi-Fi users, modern software and apps make it possible for their users to discover any networks available – including yours.

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Unfortunately, SSID can also contribute to falling victim to a cyber attack. In 2016, TalkTalk customers had their Wi-Fi passwords stolen by hackers in a Mirai malware attack that took down TalkTalk and the Post Office's broadband networks. Hackers managed to reveal the routers' SSID code, which in turn provided them with the information on where they were being used. Cyber criminals can also take advantage of data packets that have travelled through your device. If intercepted, they can use traces of the SSID to obtain personal information, including the name of the network you use.

Apart from being a potential security issue, an SSID can also be the source of aggravation and even neighbourly disputes, especially if multiple other people in your apartment building or street use the same ISP – which is quite common, as sometimes one specific ISP is recommended in a given area. This could mean that multiple networks in close proximity will have similar default SSIDs, especially if the network names are left unchanged. If unprotected, this could lead to devices connecting to networks belonging to someone else. Whether accidental or on purpose, the owner of the network could be left with having to cover the costs of someone else exceeding the download limits.

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