Computer criminals can "sniff" the traffic in a cafe, or set up a fake hot spot that you might innocently log into. When that happens, watch out: Everything you type goes directly to the host computer, known as an "evil twin." In that scenario, as soon as you get into your online bank account, the evil twin is ready to grab the password.
As portable computers without WiFi connections are now in the minority, users of public hotspots are increasingly subject to attack. Here are a few of my own wireless safety tips when using public hotspots:
- Connect only to known hotspots. Look for signs in airports, hotel lobbies, coffee shops, and anywhere else you might find a hotspot. If there isn't a sign, ask a staff member, especially if your computer recognizes multiple open networks. If you run a public hotspot yourself, make this information easy to find.
- It's all in the name. Starbucks uses T-Mobile to power their hotspots. These hotspots are generally named "t-mobile". While it might sound appropriate for there to be a WiFi hotspot called "starbucks" -- that's exactly what the bad guys want you to think, it could be a trap.
- Watch for "Computer-to-Computer" connections. While only a warning sign and not an absolute guide, those networks that show up in your list of available connections as a "peer-to-peer" or "computer-to-computer" are more likely to be the data thief sipping a mocha across the room. Some computers can be set to hide computer-to-computer conections as an added safeguard.
- Increase your own security. Firewall software is essential -- most newer operating systems have it built-in. Keep your anti-virus software current by downloading the latest definition files. Finally, update your operating system to fix known vulnerabilities before they are exploited.
- Change your passwords. Sometimes using a public hotspot is unavailable (same applies to internet kiosks) -- a good tip after using a public wireless connection is to change your email password when you return to your home computer. (Changing a password on a potentially tainted computer could be a bad idea if you think about it.) Even better: Change your password at regular intervals!
- Don't access sensitive data. The best way to ensure you're being protected is to avoid accessing personal data such as banking information or email while using a public hotspot or internet kiosk. If possible, wait until you're back on your own connection or hardwired. And don't forget to look for the "s" or closed padlock indicating an encrpyted connection to the site you are accessing...
- Bring your own (secure) wireless. Many hotels are offering wireless connections in addition to ethernet jacks in guest rooms. Even when a hotel offers their own wireless signal, I prefer to make my own using a portable router such as Linksys' WTR54GS Travel Router or Apple's Airport Express. I've used and recommend both devices.
While not completely fool-proof, being cautious -- and using common sense -- will help protect you from those trying to steal your personal information for purposes of identity theft.
If you've got a tech tip you'd like to pass along, or want more information on how to keep yourself safe while surfing, email me -- tech (AT) brianwestbrook (DOT) com.