Airports. Starbucks. Dunkin Donuts. McDonalds. The public library. Hackers are drawn to places like this, attracted like flies, feeding on the innocent who congregate there for the free public WiFi hotspots. You should assume there are at least one or more individuals probing the network for security vulnerabilities, sniffing network traffic to see who is sending sensitive data unencrypted, and swooping in on anyone with a weak password.
It is important to understand, they aren’t just kids up to childish pranks, these are very serious individuals. In highly populated urban areas, for example California and New York, Washington, the playground of trained professional career hackers. In some instances, they won’t even be inside the building. They will be outside in the parking lot, their vehicle loaded with computer hardware/software, doing their dastardly deeds undetected, in the privacy of their car. This is called “WarDriving“. A perfect example: An attack in Seattle where three men were indicted by a federal grand jury for hacking at least 13 Seattle-area businesses’ wireless networks to steal sensitive information, as well as burglarizing the premises of at least 41 businesses.
As you can see, when you connect to a public WiFi hotspot, you are in wide open unsecure territory, and it is your responsibility to protect yourself from the wolves at the door.
I regularly receive email from readers asking about their various computer questions, and Rogue WiFi is one of the more serious issues that are affecting many. Let’s take a look how you can still enjoy your online activities while keeping yourself and your information safe and secure.
Because laptops are now so low cost, I recommend getting one specifically to use while travelling and wireless connectivity. As I wrote in my Christmas article “Dr. Tech’s Top 20 Fantasy Gift List!”, the best budget laptop is the Dell Inspiron 15 (I15RV-6190 BLK) which comes complete with Windows 8, Intel 1.8Ghz processor, 4GB ram, 15.6″ screen, 500GB hard drive, coming in at $349.99.
If that is still a bit much for your budget, you can even find other lower priced models at WalMart or LaptopCloseouts.com. a little bit of price hunting around online will yield some great laptop bargains.
It doesn’t have to be a new laptop either, you can easily find a local buy on a second hand used laptop on ebay, a pawn shop, Craigslist, or even a friend. Wipe Windows off the hard drive to clear out all existing information, malware, and viruses, and install one of the many varieties of Linux (such as Ubuntu, Linux Mint, or on older sytems Puppy Linux), and you are good to go with a fresh clean operating system installed that is malware/virus free. Best of all, Linux is open source, and FREE!. (My favorite price!)
It doesn’t matter what laptop you use, what operating system it runs, or how much you pay for it. The important take away point is to use a laptop specifically while travelling and using public WiFi, to keep your real computer and private data safe at home.
Before you do anything else, make sure you download and patch your operating system with all the updates, and your web browser as well. I highly recommend the Chrome browser (Chromium on Linux). If you are super paranoid as well, use full-disk encryption on your laptop.
IF you are using a new Windows laptop, make a RESTORE DISK using the utility provided with your laptop so you can regularly do a full hard drive wipe and re-install the operating system about once a month. This guarantees any malware, viruses, key-loggers, etc. are deleted.
After each use, delete your cookies, cache, and clear the Web browser history. Update your antivirus with the latest virus definitions as well at least daily.
Be Alert for Rogue Wireless!
Don’t just jump on any open WiFi that has the strongest signal. Just because it says Lobby or McDonald’s or Terminal 1 doesn’t mean it’s legit! Hackers routinely set up rogue WiFi, transmitting an SSID (network name) that looks very similar to the real one, hoping unsuspecting people will just connect and start entering personal information and passwords. Wherever you are, make sure you ask what the network name of the WiFi is so you know you are connecting to the real one.
USE A VPN (Virtual Private Network) AT ALL TIMES! It prevents hackers (or the government) from eavesdropping on your online activity. Most VPN services also act as an anonymizer. Some good VPN services are:
This list is far from complete, but it is a good start to get you in the right direction. Find one you like, that fits in your budget, and use it!
IBVPN has an excellent graphic illustrating how a VPN works:
A note about VPNs. Information (Data) is only encrypted between your computer and the VPN provider’s servers.
Data from the VPN servers to whatever website you are connecting to is unencrypted, so you still need to make sure any sensitive information is through an HTTPS connection on the website you are visiting.