Last week I talked about how to minimize risk when using a public computer. Now I’m going to be talking about a very similar situation:
using a portal computer to connect to a public wireless Internet connection, or Wi-Fi. In recent years, more and more establishments have adopted a standard of free Wi- Fi. Bookstores, libraries, even many McDonald’s restaurants have begun to offer customers free Wi-Fi.
Riverside itself even provides free Wi-Fi throughout the city! However, coffee shops and other similar businesses remain the main source of Wi- Fi locations.
A mistake many people make is to assume that these places provide free security as well as free Wi-Fi. This is not always the case; instead assume that a free wireless connection is just that: a free connection and nothing else, with no added security.
That being said, it follows that you shouldn’t do anything financial or equally sensitive on a public connection.
Even if the website you were using uses “https” instead of the less secure “http”, it can still be dangerous. That kind of activity should be reserved for your personal computer and connection at home.
An easy thing you can do is activate your computer’s firewall, if it isn’t already on. To do this, simply go into the Control Panel and find “Windows Firewall” (if you only see categories, switch to “Classic View”). After you click it, simply select the On option to start the firewall.
The firewall won’t automatically protect you from any malicious attacks, but it is always a good idea to have it on. Unless there is a specific reason for turning it off, it’s a good idea to keep it on at all times, not just when using a public Internet connection.
Something else you should do is disable file and printer sharing. Any folders you might have marked as shared across a home network could be accessible by anyone on the same public wireless connection.
To disable this option, find your Network Connections page (if it isn’t in the icons on the bottom right in your task bar, go into the Control Panel, and click on Network Connections). From there, right click on the wireless connection you are using and click on Properties. Look for the option “File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Windows” and disable it. One thing to consider is physical security, by which I mean keeping an eye on your laptop! This is another problem that you shouldn’t have with a home computer, but comes into play when you bring a portable computer out into the world. Aside from your laptop simply being stolen; it is possible for someone to gain information from your laptop if they can get to it. The Internet browser Firefox for example has all of its stored passwords available to check by just a few keystrokes! A stranger could easily walk up to your laptop with a pen and paper, make a few clicks and keystrokes, and be writing down user names and passwords, all within twenty seconds. If for any reason at all you need to turn your back on a laptop, before you do so quickly hold down the Windows key and hit L. This will automatically send your computer into standby mode, requiring that a user reenter their password to get back into the account (and there should be a password attached to your account, even if you are the only one who uses the computer).
And one final note: when you are done with the wireless connection you should leave it the same way you connected to it. There’s no reason to stay on an unsecured network any longer than you have to.
This article is the seventh in a series devoted to Internet security, and learning how to keep you and your information safe. Any questions, requests for clarifications, or comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg Bailey is a Computer Science major at UCR Bourns College of Engineering
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