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.
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.
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.