Wi-fi with your latte – is public surfing safe?

1 March 2012

Is sending a quick work email from your local café or library safe? KATHY HOLLOWAY guides you through internet security at public ‘hotspots’.

During the long summer holiday (well it was summer somewhere!), I was sitting in a ‘hotspot’ café enjoying my trim latte. I turned on my tablet to do a little surfing and check my email (as you do) and suddenly thought about security. Firstly, what does ‘hotspot’ mean, and secondly, was everyone else in the café also checking their email or were they accessing my computer and laughing at my holiday photos?

Why public wi-fi (wireless internet access) is called a hotspot is unclear (but it is thought to have originated from Nokia engineers in 2000). The more important question is how do you protect your laptop or tablet’s security when sharing a wireless internet connection with complete strangers?

Public hotspots fall into one of two categories: free hotspots anyone can access; or subscription hotspots that require you to sign up to an account before you can use them. To get connected to a free hotspot, all you have to do is walk within range of the network. Your wi-fi card will then connect with the hotspot network and you will have a live connection to the internet. For subscription hotspots, you must first sign up for a hotspot account before you can access the web, your email, or any other network resource.

What does it all mean and how do you start? Wi-fi is short for ‘wireless fidelity’ and is used to form WLAN or wireless local area networks (feel free to toss these terms into conversation to demonstrate your technological savvy!). Using wi-fi standard protocols allows you to access the internet via hotspot ports, commonly found in libraries, cafes, and other public buildings.

The concept is similar to that of a cell phone needing a receiver within range in order to send or receive calls.

The networks of access ports are growing with Telecom, Vodafone, 2degrees, and other providers all in the market. A Google search recently showed 48,400 hits for hotspots in New Zealand alone. Check out the providers for maps of hotspots near you.

If you have a laptop without built-in wi-fi capability – you can still join in. The easiest way to add wireless networking capability is through slipping a USB wireless modem into the slot on the side of your laptop.

However, as raised above, the big question is how secure is your data when you are using a public hotspot? Public hotspots (free or subscription-based) are by no means as secure as a private wireless network. Common sense would dictate therefore that you don’t do your banking or purchase goods through unsecured public networks.

If you are working, then log into your company’s virtual private network (VPN) before you access or send confidential documents over a public hotspot’s network. Usually, the encryption offered by your company VPN will keep prying eyes from reading any bits of data they might snag out of thin air. If your company doesn’t have a VPN, and you use a web-based email system like Yahoo or Hotmail to access confidential data when you aren’t in the office, you may inadvertently expose private information on a public hotspot because your email won’t be encrypted. Consider not checking email from a hotspot or working with your company to create a VPN for secure access.

According to PC Magazine, the easiest way to thwart attacks when on a public wireless network is to disable file-sharing and install a personal firewall. To disable file-sharing in Windows, go to the control panel and select networks. In the networks dialogue box, click on the sharing button, and uncheck the file and printer sharing boxes. Click apply and reboot. In Windows XP, open the control panel, and select network connections. In network connections, right click on the wireless adapter, and select properties. On the general tab, scroll the list of items the adapter uses and uncheck file and printer sharing for Microsoft networks.

For a firewall, you can use a commercial personal firewall, such as Norton Internet Security or MacAfee. If you are unsure of your security talk to your ISP or your organisations IT department. Remember, with awareness comes choice and practice safe hotspot surfing!