Keep your data safe when connecting to public wireless hotspots

How about we open this article with some good old fashioned scaremongering? Any time you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot, almost every single piece of data you transmit can be picked up by anyone within range of the same network.

When you connect to an unencrypted Internet hotspot, almost everything sent between your computer and the Internet is sent in a format that anyone can read when they install a small piece of software.

There are hundreds of free “network analyzers/sniffers” available on the Internet, and even untrained users will be able to start sniffing wireless traffic in a matter of minutes. Now, before you freak out too much, you need to know that not all traffic is susceptible to snooping, and that there are ways to protect yourself. Also important to know – sites and services like banks and email providers use a secure Internet protocol that makes snooping virtually impossible.

(Photo from Flickr/Corypina)
Turn off “auto connect”

On your computer, make sure “auto connect to Wi-Fi hotspots” isn’t enabled. Always verify that the hotspot you are connecting to is indeed from the provider you want.

There are real scams out there, usually involving wireless hotspots called “Free public Wi-Fi” – these “honeypot” hotspots are set up with the sole purpose of trying to steal your data. If you really need to get online, the urge to connect to the first open hotspot you find may be tempting, but it pays to be secure.

Don’t share files on your computer

When you connect to a wireless hotspot, anything you are sharing on your computer, may be shared with anyone else connected to that network.

So, to prevent this make sure you either disable the file and printer sharing feature, end the files/folder sharing option, or pick the correct network type. Only the most recent versions of Windows will present you with the network “location” popup, so be sure to pick wisely.

Get yourself a 3G or 4G adapter

Don’t trust working on a public network at all? Invest in a 3G or 4G wireless broadband adapter, and you won’t have to worry about people listening in on your data. Network connections with a mobile broadband service are encrypted, and extremely tough to hack/eavesdrop.

Of course, your own 3G adapter comes at a price – you’ll be paying around $50 for access, and you’ll be limited to the coverage area of the operator, but if the information you transmit is really important, the investment won’t be hard to justify.

Create your own secure connection with a VPN

A VPN – or Virtual Private Network is a system that transports your Internet traffic to a secure server, then passes it on to the Internet. By using a VPN, everything sent between your computer and the VPN service is encrypted. Access to a VPN is usually pretty simple if you work for a large company. but even consumers can get their own VPN setup without too much hassle.

The easiest, and most popular (free) consumer solution is Hotpot Shield. With Hotspot Shield, you simply enable the application when you are at a public hotspot, and your traffic is securely sent over their VPN.

Another solution (that I’ve used a lot myself) is Hotspot VPN. Their no-frills web site lets you create a VPN connection (which you have to manually configure). Hotspot VPN is available for under $9/month, or for $3.88 if you only want a day pass.

Once you have set up a VPN, all Internet traffic on your computer passes through the secure servers of the VPN company, making eavesdropping nearly impossible.

More advanced users may want to consider setting up their own VPN at home, using Open VPN, or even by installing an improved firmware version on their router, turning it into a router/VPN server.

Connect securely to your home PC, then connect to sites you need

Several weeks ago, we reviewed Logmein – a service that lets your remotely connect to your computer. With Logmein, you can connect to your home PC using the Logmein software, your browser, or the Logmein Ignition client for the iPhone.

Once connected to your home PC, you can use all the Internet applications you want – securely. The downside is of course that your home PC needs to be turned on 24/7 for the connection to work.

Secure sites are your best bet

Staying secure is as simple as making sure the sites you connect to are secure – so always look for the https:// and/or padlock symbol in your browser. Modern browsers also allow you to hover with your mouse over the site name to be sure it is a verified web service, and not a spoof.

ALL traffic is vulnerable – not just web traffic

Just because you are a responsible user that keeps an eye open for the “padlock” in your browser, doesn’t mean you are safe.

ALL traffic you send over Wi-Fi could be vulnerable. This includes your Twitter application, photo upload programs and anything else that accesses the Internet. When possible, make sure your applications access the service using a secure connection. If in doubt – don’t use them.

Firewall your computer

Always make sure your computer has a reliable firewall installed. Many systems come with this nowadays, so make sure you have it turned on, and set to block incoming traffic. Firewall software is usually “set and forget”, so there is no excuse for not being protected.

Don’t forget your mobile device(s)

Keep in mind that your handheld device is just as vulnerable as your laptop computer. Anything you transmit in the open on an iPhone or other Wi-Fi enabled device can be intercepted.

Thankfully, modern devices like the iPhone and Droid also support VPN connections – so if you really want to be secure, consider subscribing to a VPN service, or setting up your own VPN server.

Restrict what you do on Wi-Fi

This final tip is also the easiest to implement – don’t do anything on Wi-Fi that you wouldn’t want to share with anyone else. This means no bill payments, no Ebay auctions or anything else that could get you in trouble if someone grabbed your user name and password. Don’t underestimate how quickly someone can grab your password and start stealing from you.

Skype Access uses your Skype credit to access 100,000 paid Wi-Fi hotspots

Trying to make a Skype call on the road at a hotspot? Up till now, you first had to pay to access paid Wi-Fi hotspots – which often meant having to pay for an entire day just so you could make one phone call.

The new Skype Access service takes care of this by combining Skype calling with hotspot access.

When you use the most recent version of the Windows or Mac Skype client, the application will offer to take care of paying for your hotspot access. Accessing paid hotspots costs $0.19 per minute – which is substantially cheaper than the $15 or $20 charged by many public paid access points.

A list of all the supported Wi-Fi hotspot providers can be found here. All the major providers are covered, including those at airports and hotels around the world.

At the moment, Skype Access is not (yet) available on their mobile clients, but hopefully that is only a matter of time.

Being able to make a Skype call, and pay for both the call and your hotspot access from your Skype credit is a brilliant idea – and one that will make phone calls on the road even easier. Click here to learn more about the new Skype Access feature, or to download the latest version of Skype.

Daily deal – Zyxel USB wireless adapter with built in hotspot finder

My daily deal for today is for the Zyxel AG-225HSP USB Wi-Fi adapter/hotspot finder.

This small USB dongle adds Wi-Fi to any laptop that does not have it built in, plus it doubles as a hotspot finder that can help discover wireless hotspots without gaving to turn your laptop on.

This adapter usually retails for $40, but currently has it on sale with a $20 mail-in rebate and free shipping, bringing the price down to a very reasonable $20.

Not all laptops out there have Wi-Fi built in, and with more and more public locations adding wireless access, this device is the perfect way to help get your laptop online if you regularly pass through a hotel, airport or the local Starbucks.

Included in the box is the adapter with a protective cap, a USB extension cable, a driver CD and a wrist strap. The rebate is only valid on purchases made until September 28th.