Computer Protection On The Road

January 24, 2010 · 18 comments

How to protect your computer on public WiFi

Computer viruses should be renamed to computer STDs. Maybe that would raise awareness for  more people to use protection. Logging onto an unprotected network is, metaphorically the same as having unprotected sex. No one is going to hand out free computer protection; you need to practice responsible computer networking.

I travel often, and for the past year I’ve used a netbook with Windows XP. Public WiFi has always been a security concern, and sometimes even an expense. Avoiding any cost is becoming much easier as common chain restaurants and most hotels provide free service – having to pay irks me more on the basis of principle than the actual cost.

First, no matter if you’re at home or on the road, you should already be using commonly known protection. Shame on you if you don’t.

The Obvious Things
•    Use updated anti-virus protection.
•    Use a firewall.
•    Don’t visit sites you wouldn’t show your mother.
•    Drop Internet Explorer like a bad brother-in-law. Use Firefox, Opera or Google Chrome instead. In fact, Firefox with the noscript plugin will go a long way to protect you on the net by allowing only trusted sites to runs scripts on your computer.

The Very Best
The best protection is abstention. Don’t use public WiFi. If your budget allows, use WWAN -  Wireless Wide Area Network. WWAN is wireless connectivity to the Internet using cellular tower technology. It goes by different names depending on your wireless company.  With Verizon for instance, you can buy a monthly plan, plug in a USB device or card, and connect. If you have a smartphone, a BlackBerry or iPhone for example, you can tether it to your laptop and connect using the phone.

The benefits are, you never have to log on to public WiFi, your data is encrypted and this is the safest way to use the Internet at this time. The cons are, it ain’t cheap.

The Not so Obvious Things
If you must use public WiFi, use a personal VPN. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is almost as good as WWAN. Once you are logged on, you simply start the VPN like any other program and connect through it. The technicalities of a VPN are far too lengthy to explain here. The basics are, you connect to a server in another location by “tunneling” through the Internet. It is through the remote server that you actually connect to the Internet. As with WWAN your data is encrypted and all is much safer than simply using the net via the open WiFi network.

But wait…
The cost for a personal VPN can range from free (OpenVPN ) to open-your-mouth expensive. OpenVPN is not a good choice for non-techie people due to a more difficult setup.
Last year I researched till my fingers were bloody from keyboarding to find something inexpensive, fast and safe. The easiest to use and the least expensive I could find was Witopia. I’ve had nothing but good service from this company. As of this writing, the cost for a fast, fully encrypted personal VPN is about $60.00. One of the benefits is their vast network of servers. You can connect using a server closest to you, and you have a lot of choice from east to west.

What Else?
Argue as you will, but a Mac is safer than a PC with Windows. I will be moving to a MacBook Pro this year, not only for the safety, but because I need it for some graphic and photo work I’ll be doing on the road. In my office I use a Mac Pro, and I’ve reached a point where I don’t need Windows for anything. Witopia has a version for Mac as well as Windows.

One small but important application I use on a Mac is Little Snitch. It has one purpose; it checks all programs and processes for outgoing connections and asks you to allow them or not. You can even allow an application to connect only until you quit. I can find nothing similar to this for Windows. All out huge memory hogging software firewalls are all I can find.
Note that Windows Vista and Windows 7 have a clunky way of adding rules for outgoing connections.

Don’t become just another fatal statistic. Use protection.


Mari January 26, 2010 at 9:43 am

Very informative, Hal.
I'll be interested in reading your update when you move to a traveling Mac later this year.

Hal Brown January 26, 2010 at 10:21 am

Thanks Mari. In fact, I just got the Mac, and I'm setting it up for road travel. I plan on a follow-up with more about public WiFi regarding where to find it.

Missy January 26, 2010 at 11:52 am

This is quite possibly the most informative post I've read yet. My BIL suggested WWAN as I was doing laptop research (haven't pulled the trigger yet). I had NO IDEA that public WIFI was a breeding ground for STDs. Great analogy. Plus I had no idea about Internet explorer v. Firefox – I think I'll switch to Google Chrome today. Thanks so much.

Hal Brown January 26, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Of course public WiFi is an open network. That means anyone with a modicum of network savvy can access your computer (it is part of the network). Therein lies the rub, er problem.
Thanks for the comment Missy

Suresh Khanal January 26, 2010 at 1:38 pm

“Don't open a site you won't show your mother'!!!!!!

What an excellent way of suggesting. Powerful. Its extreme powerful and I salute!

And a good workaround you mention here 'To use VPN'
I'll be waiting for you coming post on this think. Hope you'll certainly write more about VPN.

Hal Brown January 26, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Thank you Suresh. A follow-up, more detail about VPNs I hope to do soon.

ileane January 28, 2010 at 12:09 am

I found great information in this post. I'm a PC users but I've had fewer problems since I downloaded Google Chrome. But at my day job we are wedded to IE because we use Oracle for order processing and there's no work-around. When I'm traveling for work, I need to use the VPN anyway to get into our systems. I have a question about the WWAN, do you know if T-Mobil has the service? A friend of mine was asking me about this the other day and I wasn't sure.

It's interesting how 2 or 3 years ago you had to pay for internet access in hotels, but now it seems that every where you stay has free WiFi. After reading this post we all know now that free WiFi can come with a heavy price tag.

Thanks for the information.

Hal Brown January 28, 2010 at 12:38 am

Thanks ileane. I appreciate your feedback. I owned a computer business for about 10 years, so I know how Windows is embedded in most companies. I don't see that changing any time soon.

When you travel you are probably using Cisco VPN (Guessing) which of course is fine. As far as T-Mobile WWAN I don't know much about that. Have a look at T-Mobile HotSpot Network:
I hope that link comes through OK. If contact me (via the contact page or email) and I'll send the longer version.
Recently I read that MacDonalds will not charge for WiFi anymore, and I do know that lots of chain restaurants are free. And yes, public networks are just that, public.

Shawn_K January 28, 2010 at 8:05 am

Good point, also you forgot to mention use SSL when available! :)

Hal Brown January 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm

Good observation Shawn. And a likely candidate for an upcoming post. Thanks.

Shawn K. February 1, 2010 at 4:01 am

I can't resist making another comment…
So public WiFi is like sex, huh? Alot of people enjoy sex! :)

I guess server side compression and WiMax would be like a form of ecstasy…lol

Hal Brown February 1, 2010 at 10:51 am

Sometimes you just have to let the metaphor do its magic Shawn. :)

Shawn K. February 1, 2010 at 5:48 pm

Like I said, I just couldn't resist.
Metaphors are fun in general!

Ken Kurosawa February 3, 2010 at 6:27 am

Great article, I've always loved little snitch, but haven't installed it on my new MBP. A great reminder!

Kevin M. February 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Great advice Hal! This is something that I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about but after your analogy (and suggestions) I am going to be looking a LOT closer at this.

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