Stay Safe – Free Wi-Fi Network Security

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Whether you are at home or on the road, you can access free Wi-Fi virtually everywhere, from airports and hotels to coffee shops and fast food restaurants. But while it’s convenient to be able to easily tie into a wireless network, it can also be dangerous. If you aren’t careful, you could be making it way too convenient for hackers to do what they do best: steal your personal and business information.

Any time you use a free Wi-Fi hotspot that does not require a password, you should assume that a hacker can see everything you send and receive. Some Wi-Fi hot spots, such as those offered by AT&T and Comcast, require you to log in with your user name and password. All they are doing, however, is restricting access to the network; they are not creating a secure wireless connection.

Here are some precautions you should take whenever you access a Wi-Fi network.

•       Disable file sharing - You don’t want to share files, printers or any other computer resources.

•       Enable your firewall - This will prevent unauthorized users from accessing your computer. Windows 7 and Windows Vista have a built-in firewall that is enabled by default. Mac’s Mountain Lion, system 10.8, gives applications restricted access to the system’s files and resources, which prevents them from crashing the entire system. This also prevents malicious software from causing major problems. Older Mac systems also have built-in options aimed at keeping the computer secure.

•       Set up a virtual private network (VPN) – This is a secure, encrypted tunnel through which your computer communicates with the Internet. The tunnel starts on your computer, travels over the public wireless network and connects you with a VPN server.

Connecting to a Public Wi-Fi Network

When you are setting up a new network connection, Windows will prompt you to choose the type of network. The choices are:

•       A home network, which treats all computers on the network as friendly, enabling easy sharing of folders and files;

•       An office network, which is somewhat stricter;

•       A public network, which is the strictest option, hiding your computer from the rest of the network and disabling file and print sharing.

If you access the Internet with applications other than your Web browser, such as an FTP or desktop mail client, make sure you enable SSL secure connections for each application. If you need more control when connecting to various networks, try the Window’s utility NetSetMan or Mac’s AirPort Location.

Free VPN Possibilities

You can set up a VPN for free, but keep in mind that there is a downside to all of the following options

•       CyberGhost VPN - You install software on your machine to access this service, which is usually overloaded during daytime hours and requires users to wait in a queue for free access. You won’t have to wait if you choose to pay for the service. We found several sites that are not accessible through this VPN, and there is no Mac version.

•       Ultrasurf - This service was designed to circumvent the firewall in China. It supports only Web traffic, not other traffic such as FTP or VOIP. We found that Ultrasurf does not support certain websites, including WordPress administration pages. It’s for PCs only; there is no Mac version.

•       Its Hidden - We could not get this service to work properly. Its Hidden is supposed to be a free VPN service that encrypts all your traffic when you use a PPTP VPN connection.

•       Proxify - This service helps you surf anonymously and securely but is limited to Web access only. The free service has ads and does not support all file formats.

•       Hotspot Shield - This free service for Windows is slow and filled with ads, but it works. You won’t have to deal with the ads if you pay for Hotspot Shield.

•       Hide My Ass - This is a free service that includes a Web proxy, Facebook proxy and more – but be sure to read the disclaimers.

•     proXPN - The free version is bandwidth-throttled and does not allow you to select a specific country.

Obviously, all the free VPN services have limitations. If you can work within their limits, we suggest you utilize one. However, most users require more robust VPN access and will have to either set up a VPN server on their home computer or sign up for a paid service. Remember that most VPNs and proxy services will not tolerate illegal activities.

Paid VPN Servers

If you travel a lot or you just don’t think any of the free VPN options will serve your needs, you should purchase a VPN account. PPTP (point-to-point tunneling protocol) the VPN protocol of choice, is built into Windows, but it is easy to block. Open VPN will work where PPTP VPN is blocked, typically in countries in the Middle East and in China.

Keep in mind that using a VPN to order products online may cause some problems. The VPN will make your IP address appear to be wherever the VPN server is located, which might be in another state or even another country. If you order an item and have it shipped to a place different from where your VPN server is located, some fraud detection systems might flag the order as being fraudulent.

What to Look for in a VPN Provider

•       Price - Obviously, the cheaper the better, but the least expensive providers offer limited features and slow performance.

•       Length of contract - The longer time period you commit to, the lower the price.

•       Location - Different VPN providers have servers in different countries.

•       Encryption strength - The stronger the encryption, the higher the price.

•       VPN software compatibility - Some VPN servers require special client software for higher security access.

•       Logging - Make sure your VPN provider is not logging your Internet activities.

•       Speed - Some lower-cost providers overload their servers and Internet connections, which will, of course, slow things down.

You should take a close look at your needs and your budget before selecting a VPN provider. A Google search will probably reveal any problems other users have had with a specific service.

When You are Finished Using a Public Wi-Fi Hotspot

When you have finished using a public wireless network, it is important that you turn off your Wi-Fi connection to prevent any accidental data leakage.

Free public Wi-Fi can be a useful tool. If you take precautions, it can be a safe tool as well.

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One response to “Stay Safe – Free Wi-Fi Network Security”

  1. Dan J says:

    This is something that they should teach in school. If you want to keep your online secrets safe, then better make sure that your WiFi connection is secure at all times!

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