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How To Protect Your Sensitive Personal Data When Using Public WiFi Networks

Last week, I met a friend for lunch to discuss her new business venture. After lunch, we moved our discussion to a nearby coffee shop. While there, my friend surfed the Internet using her mobile device and the coffee shop's public WiFi network.

When we finished our discussion, I suggested that she change her passwords for the websites she visited, since she had signed into with HTTP connections instead of HTTPS connections. (My friend had not heard about PrivateWiFi.) During the subway ride home, I began to wonder what a comprehensive list for consumers would be of tips about how to securely use public WiFi networks, at places like airport lounges and coffee shops.

If you aren't familiar with the identity-theft threat, about a year ago there were many articles about the Firesheep Web browser plugin, which allows hackers at public WiFi hotspots to monitor nearby consumers' online sessions and steal account log-in passwords. A recent tweak of Firesheep allows it to steal your Google web history. Not to be outdone, the newer Droidsheep app allows hackers to monitor and steal from mobile devices running the Android operating system.

With tools like these, the identity-theft and fraud damages can be extensive. Thieves can send spam from your email and/or social networking website accounts, or steal money from your bank accounts.

So what can a consumer do to protect their data? This Hot Spot Hacker article offers several good tips for using your mobile device securely at public WiFi networks:

"1. Set your laptop or smart phone so you have to manually select the Wi-Fi network. You may need to change the default setting

2. Make sure you know the exact name of the establishment's Wi-Fi network and connect only to it. Don't be fooled by look-alikes."

These two tips are good reminders because it is easy to set your mobile device to automatically connect at coffee shops you visit repeatedly, and forget about WiFi network security.

"3. Avoid any hot spot that your device lists as "unsecured." Keep in mind that even if a password is required, a hot spot can still be unsecured."

This tip cannot be over emphasized. Of course, it is preferable to use WiFi networks that require a password log-in, but that is just a start. A password log-in is not complete security. For full security, the entire session must be encrypted, because browser cookie and other files transmitted during the session contain personal data hackers can abuse:

"4. If your device shows the site as secured, pay attention to what kind of encryption it lists. WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is an early system, dating from over a decade ago. If it's WEP, treat the network as not secure. WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is better, and WPA2 is best of all."

Most people I know have no idea what brand of wireless encryption to look for and to use. Now you know. Here's what else you need to know about WiFi network security:

"5. If you send personal data over a Wi-Fi link, do so only to an encrypted website. You can tell a site is encrypted if you see the letters "https" (the "s" stands for "secure") at the beginning of its Web address. Also, look for a lock icon on the top or bottom of pages throughout the site."

So, what can a consumer do to use WiFi networks safely and securely? One suggestion:

"6. Before using a public Wi-Fi network, install such software as Force-TLS and HTTPS-Everywhere, which are free add-ons to the Firefox browser. They make sure you use encryption features available on websites you visit. Virtual private network software — some of it free, some not — can also add security."

You could also use PrivateWiFi. And, there are more WiFi network security tips. To learn more, visit the Hot Spot Hacker article. If your mobile device uses the Android operating system, watch this Droidsheep video.

Comments

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Gary Bobton

I love that public places like Panera Bread, Tim Hortons and McDonalds have wifi. But, you never know what creeper is there to steal your information from the parking lot either. You never can be too sure.

Ian Worrall

A better alternative is don't do any computer work in public Wi Fi areas that require you to use personal information

Wi fi Services

Thanks for the information. I'm glad that I read your post. Now I know how to protect my personal data when using wifi in public.

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