The traveling business user has become accustomed to taking free wireless Internet at airports, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores and a multitude of other locations for granted. The convenience factor of being able to stay connected anywhere has become more of a necessity rather than a convenience. But the reality is that this free convenience comes at a cost: Security.
Security, or lack thereof, is the major problem with ‘free’ wireless Internet access at all these locations. Here are the problems: First, free wireless Internet is rarely ever encrypted leaving your data open to interception and possibly compromising sensitive data. Second, you have no way of knowing if the wireless access point you are connecting to is actually what it appears, just because it says ‘Airport’ or ‘Coffee Shop’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t really are what they say they are – often these can be access points that are maliciously set up in order to steal as much information as possible from you.
Now, I don’t want you to get frightened away from free wireless access points just because of these dangers. Free access points can be very beneficial for certain uses. But, you should take some precautions when using them.
Foremost, make sure that your computer has a firewall – even the built-in Windows Firewall is better than none at all. This severely limits the routes that attackers can use to get into your system.You should also avoid transmitting usernames, passwords, credit card numbers or other sensitive information unless you have a secure channel for transmission of the data, like SSL (this stands for Secure Socket Layer which is a data encryption method – you can recognize SSL based connections in your web browser by the HTTPS prefix on websites rather than HTTP which is used for unencrypted connections), or VPN (or Virtual Private Network – a method of securely connecting to a ‘trusted’ network – like your home or office via a client/server setup).
Avoid using your e-mail client unless your system uses encrypted connections (check with your IT department or e-mail provider if you’re unsure). If your e-mail client doesn’t connect securely and you use it, you could end up giving a rogue user access to your account information.
There are alternatives to using free Wi-Fi: Aircards or Tethering* allow you to use the network provided by your cellular company. While not foolproof – this method does mitigate the risks of your packets (data) being easily sniffed out by someone at the location you are at. Also, you will find that many airports (at kiosks) and hotels have wired Data Ports available – these can be lower risk than unsecured wireless.
And if you do spend a lot of time in hotels you may want to check into a portable wireless router (like the D-Link DWL-G730AP Pocket Router/AP). This way you could connect to a hotel’s wired network with your portable wireless router and then have an encrypted wireless access of your own available. And not only that – while many hotels have free wired Internet, often you have to pay for wireless but not if you have a portable wireless router. And, considering the price some hotels charge for Wi-Fi, the portable wireless router could pay for itself in two nights at a hotel and start making returns for you.
Wherever you are and whatever method you choose to use, connect wherever you may be. Remember to be mindful that there can be risks. And that “free” Wi-Fi could end up costing far more than you bargained for.