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Security Risks for Free Wireless Networks

November 11, 2010

I don’t know about you but I love to get away from my desk every once in a while and head down to my local coffee shop to work.  I get my mocha or latte, sit sown in a nice comfy chair, setup my laptop, connect to the free wireless network, and spend a couple of hours working and enjoying the atmosphere.  Life is good.  At least life is good right up until I get a call from a friend wondering why I just sent him a rather vulgar email. 

No, this hasn’t actually happened to me but it is a very real risk.  Just in the past two weeks I had 2 friends tell me that someone hacked into their email account and 3 other friends tell me that they had their Facebook accounts compromised.

Additionally, I recently read about a security audit that was done on some of the more common sites on the internet that store personal information.  Most of the sites reviewed did not do very well especially when the user was on an unsecured wireless network.

I would strongly recommend that you take a look at the link and read the article.  It does a really good job of explaining how these sites can be compromised and what their different vulnerabilities are.

What is it that makes these wireless networks so unsafe?  The best way I can explain it is like this: When you are connected to a wireless network everything you type into a browser (or any application that transmits data over the internet) must be broadcasted from your computer to the wireless router.  There are programs out there that can capture what your computer is broadcasting. If the wireless connection or the site is not secured in some way then the person who just captured this data can see everything that you have been doing.

So what does all this really mean for you and me?  It means that we need to be aware of what we are doing on the internet especially when we are connected to public wireless networks.  Some sites are more vulnerable than others. Social networking sites in particular are vulnerable (see article from above).

How so we protect ourselves from these kinds of risks?  Here is my list of 7 things that can help protect you when you are using to a public internet connection.  This list is by no means definitive but it will go a long way to making sure your online data stays safe and secure.

  1. If you are going to login to a website or service make sure it is using a secured connection such as HTTPS, SSL, or SFTP.  Depending on the browser you are using there will be an icon that tells you the site you are browsing is secure.  In IE it is a little padlock.
  2. Make sure you have a software based firewall on your computer.
  3. Always make sure your OS and applications are fully patched.
  4. Keep your virus database updated.
  5. If you are not actively using your wireless connection turn it off.
  6. Finally, use common sense.  Be aware of what you are doing on the internet and what kind of information you are sending out.

Remember, no matter what you are doing on the internet there are always going to be some risks.  But those risks can be greatly reduced if you stay educated on the risks and become more aware of what you are doing, where you are going, and what data you are sending over the internet.


8 Comments leave one →
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