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Public WiFi hotspots continue to pop up everywhere. They can be found in restaurants and coffee shops, and they are standard in hotels. In most cases, public WiFi is offered as a free service to the establishment’s customers, but are these areas safe? The answer is, unfortunately, that most hotspots are not safe. They are set up to be shared with the public, and that means they are easily accessible — not only for customers, but for hackers as well. However, there are precautions you can take to make it harder for uninvited visitors to access your data.
Many hotspots only require that you be within a certain range to connect to their network. While you are sitting there enjoying your espresso and typing away, a hacker could be outside in a car accessing all the information on your computer.
If you need to connect, make sure you get the correct information from the store or one of its employees. Just sitting down and connecting to what you think is the right network is dangerous. The hacker might not be sitting in his car but instead sitting at a table right next to you. If you are visiting Bob’s Bakery and connect to the network called Bob’s Bakery Free Internet, you may in for a surprise: a hacker might have created the virtual network, which means you are giving him all your information. Some companies have the WiFi information posted somewhere in the store, or they print it out on the customer’s receipt.
Dos and Don’ts
Don’t access any websites that contain financial or account information. Keyloggers can be installed over the network, so hackers can tell every key you press. If possible, don’t access websites that require you to type in passwords or other important information. Accessing basic email and checking the weather or news is usually okay, as long as you don’t have to type anything to get into those sites.
Do look for a lock symbol next to the network you are accessing. The lock symbol means it is a secure network. It is not hacker proof, but it requires more work and expertise for the hacker to access the network. Do make sure that firewalls and other antivirus software on your computer is active when connecting to a hotspot.
The VPN, or virtual private network, is the best practice if you are using a business computer. A VPN helps to create a virtual network from the computer straight to the business server at your work. You will have to have the IT guys at your work install the software and setup up the VPN on your computer. Your company should train you to properly use a VPN. According to Network World, a simple piece of software can be downloaded off the Internet to override VPN signals. Individuals who have not been trained properly would not even know that their computer had been hijacked. So you still want to be careful with what information you access.
Hackers are a thriving breed and hard to get away from. Avoid public WiFi hotspots if you need to access, send, or receive important information over the Internet. You can purchase extra software to protect your computer if you find yourself accessing hotspots on a regular basis. The more protection you have, the better.
Photo credit: Flickr/woodleywonderworks
Paul Williams brings a wide range of experiences to his writing. He worked extensively in technology, as a software engineer, technical writer, and now a technology writer. Known as the leader of one of the top American Spacerock bands, his forward-looking music continues to be heard all over the world.