Thursday, April 16, 2015

How To Stay Safe And Secure When Using Public WIFI Hotspots

Smartphones and tablets with cellular data connections are very convenient, but those data charges can add up quickly. Most users seek out those Public WIFI Hotspots when out and about. We see them everywhere - Coffee Shops, Airline terminals, Bookstores, Hotels, Restaurants, etc. Most are free and provide above average service for normal Internet connectivity. Unfortunately, these free Hotspots are not always safe. Some are replete with lurkers, eavesdropping on your online activity - recording every site you visit and every word you type. This may include your login credentials to websites, email, etc.

Open WIFI Hotspots are very handy, but inherently insecure. So, what can you do? There are many different types of VPN connections and protocols.

1. Avoid using any private credentials, if possible. If you have to login to a particular site make sure it is secure. The address bar in your browser will show HTTPS instead of HTTP indicating that you are using a secure connection (SSL). This will encrypt the data between your computer and the server you are logging into. If the "lurker" is watching he will only Be able to see "random noise". For example, if you are logging into Bank of America, make sure you see In the address bar. The good news is many websites are now moving to SSL and perhaps soon, we will see it everywhere.

2. Make sure the Firewall is turned on your Computer and turn off File Sharing.

3. Make sure you are on a legitimate network. "Bad Guys" sometimes set up rogue networks with common names like Free Wi-Fi or Public Wi-Fi to get you to connect to their illegitimate networks. Ask the hotspot owner for the name, and login information - if needed, for the hotspot you are planning to use, before you connect.

4. Set your computer or device to NOT auto connect to Public Wifi Hotspots. Otherwise, it may connect to a malicious network without your knowledge.

5. Finally, if you travel frequently and use Hotspots regularly you should consider using a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN is a method of encrypting the data from your computer to another computer in a known safe environment. It provides a secure path or tunnel from one point to another. The path could be from your "traveling computer" to your Home Network, Business Network or a Private Network somewhere else in the world. The VPN actually attaches your traveling computer to the secondary network - as if you were there. Let's assume you are in a hotel far from home and you want to login to a particular website. You would turn on your VPN client and point your browser to the website. A VPN tunnel would be established to the VPN Server in the secondary location (Home, Business, VPN host provider) and then travel on to the website that you requested. The processed request would then travel back to you via the same encrypted tunnel. So, how do you setup a VPN?

  • You can purchase a home WIFI router with a built in VPN server and use you home internet connection.
  • You can install OpenVPN software on a home server. Most Windows Servers and NAS (Network Attached Storage) have VPN capability.
  • The easiest approach is to use a VPN provider. There are a few free ones, but I don't recommend them. They may be fine, but remember you will be sending private data through their service. Private Tunnel and Private Internet Access are good choices. Both provide state of the art encryption and software clients for most any Operating system - including mobile devices. You simply start the App, connect the VPN and you are good to go. Private Tunnel let's you test out the service with 100 MB of data - free. You can then just purchase a "bucket of data" (50GB for $12) that can be used on multiple devices, with no expiration. The prices are very reasonable, if you need this type of secure access.