What is SSID?

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

wireless router

When you join a wireless network from a smartphone, laptop or even tablet, you'll be presented with a list of options to connect to. These connections are known as 'service set identifiers (SSIDs) and they can either be the default labels given to a network by its manufacturer or a customised moniker created by its owners. 

The default SSIDs typically follow a distinct pattern that is unique to their manufacturer. Virgin Media, for instance, uses the prefix 'VM' at the start of its SSIDs, followed by a set of numbers - VM-12345, for example. Sky and BT have similar SSIDs and a number of providers, such as Netgear, also do the same with devices they sell to consumers.  

To customise your own SSID from a random set of numbers and letters into something you'll easily remember, you need to access your router's web-based admin settings. If you have more than one network in a building, such as a guest Wi-Fi and employee Wi-Fi, you will likely want to keep them separate so they will require different names to ensure it is clear which is which. 

Key features of an SSID

Whether it's the ISP or router manufacturer's default name or one you've changed, a common theme with SSIDs is that they feature up to 32 case-sensitive letters and numbers. There's no minimum number of characters, and you certainly don't have to come up with 32, but it is best practice to not make too short so it's not confusing. 

SSIDs are normally provided as part of the set-up materials and printed on a sticker attached to the outside of the router, which also includes the password. Alongside the SSID and password should also be the username and password for the router's administrator console, which grants access to network data and options for configuring settings, including the SSID.

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 will typically be prompted to scan for available networks in your area and choose the most appropriate for your needs, often a home or business Wi-Fi. These will show as either open and free of any immediate authentication checks (although these can come later through a browser), or locked, symbolised by a padlock symbol. If you wish to connect to a locked network, you will be asked to input a password before your computer attempts to contact the host.

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.

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 which 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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