Public Wi-Fi Security

July 9, 2010

One of the great things about having a laptop is being able to connect to public wi-fi (hotspots) and get online when you are at the airport, the coffee shop, hotel, or many other places. But like many great things, using public wi-fi has risk.

When you are at home or work and you use wireless your wireless connect is (or at least, should be) encrypted (password protected). If you have any kind of wireless security in place, then the information flowing to and from  your laptop over the wireless connection is encrypted. However, when you use public wi-fi, this is not the case. That means that anyone with the right software can intercept your wireless signal and read the information flowing to and from your laptop.

Internet Explorer can transmit and receive information securely, but when it does this is up to the website you are on. Most websites use encryption when you are entering your login name and password or when you are entering sensitive information like credit card numbers and personal information. Financial websites general use secure connections all of the time, so they are generally safe. But pretty much all other cases are not secure. For example, if you use yahoo mail, when you enter your login information, that is secure, but once logged in, it’s not secure so someone could intercept that and read your email. But they wouldn’t be able to get your login name and password.

There is one webmail provider that can keep it secure while you are reading your email, if you set the right setting. That’s Google mail. So if you use Gmail, go into the general settings and select the option “Always use https” and from then on, everything you do on gmail will be encrypted.

If you use an email client like Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, Incredimail, and so forth, they may or may not be secure depending on your email account. If you use Gmail with any of those, then it is secure because it uses SSL (a type of security). But many standard ISP email accounts, like RoadRunner, are not secure by default. secure over public wi-fi. In addition, many of these email accounts, like RoadRunner, cannot be setup so that they are secure. This is one reason we generally don’t recommend using the email account provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP).

Another risk of using public wi-fi is that someone might be able to directly connect to your laptop. Another risk, although low-tech, is that someone could be looking over your shoulder to see what you are doing.

Below are some safety tips for using public wi-fi.

  • We recommend a good software firewall. If you have XP, the firewall built-in to XP isn’t good enough for public wi-fi. Get yourself a good firewall like Sunbelt Firewall. Vipre Premium includes Sunbelt Firewall. Some versions of AVG have a firewall. A good free firewall is Comodo Firewall, but installing it is tricky or you end up with a lot of software you don’t want. If you have Vista or Windows 7, that firewall is fine.

  • Turn off peer to peer (also known as as-hoc) wireless connections. How you do this depends on what version of Windows you have, which wireless card you have, and which wireless utility you are using. There are too many different combinations for us to include instructions on doing this for all of them. If you want instructions for how to do this, let us know. We can remote into your computer and show you how to do it.

  • Turn off File and Printer Sharing.
    This will help prevent someone from snooping around on your hard drive. The instructions for doing this will vary depending on which version of Windows you have. If you want to know how to do this, reply to this email, let us know which version of Windows you have (XP, Vista, Windows 7) and ask for instructions and we will email them to you.

  • Many companies use VPN. VPN is a way to connect to a remote network. VPN connections are encrypted and secure. If your company provides  you with VPN access to their network, connect to it when you are using public wi-fi and that will secure your wireless.

    If your company doesn’t provide VPN, or you want the same protection for your personal laptop, then go to hotspotshield.com. This free service uses VPN to provide this type of security.

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