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The Basics of Wi-Fi Security

Posted on May 10, 2011
Checking your email or Facebook account at public Wi-Fi hotspots found at coffee shops and public spaces is a very bad idea…unless you know these handy tips for securing your sensitive data over public networks.
 
Tags: wi-fi security

Which type of traffic is dangerous at public Wi-Fi hotspots?

The short answer is: Anything that requires a login, including checking email, bank accounts, and social media accounts. Before surfing to Facebook and hitting "submit" on the login screen, carefully consider whether your data is visible to others or not.

If you haven't thought about Wi-Fi security, then simply assume that everything you send on the Internet is public. Why? Most Wi-Fi-hotspots are unsecured to begin with. Without extra protections, everything you send is sent "in the clear" — visible to anyone who has the right, easy-to-obtain, tools.

Once you realize that in most situations, anyone with the right tools can see any data you send over public networks, you can begin to work backwards to add layers of security to your public Internet activity.

Use a Virtual Private Network

The best step you can take towards securing your data over a Wi-Fi connection is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). VPN software adds a layer of security by encrypting the data sent between your computer and the Wi-Fi network. Think of a VPN as a secure tunnel between you and the network.

While originally used by businesses, VPN is now commonly available in free, open-source applications. Try OpenVPN for well-regarded, free, open-source VPN software. Combine using a VPN with visiting secure sites via the HTTPS protocol (described below) and using a good firewall, and you can be reasonably sure your data won't be intercepted.

HTTPS vs. HTTP

Because it's ostensibly secure, many users are lulled into thinking their data is safe over HTTPS websites, even when using a public Wi-Fi network. What's the difference between HTTP and HTTPS and why isn't HTTPS as secure as you might think?

Sites whose address begins with HTTP (http://google.com, for example) are not secure. Any information you transmit to plain HTTP websites is publically viewable by anyone with the tools to see, or sniff, it. For instance, if you open Google and search for "Wi-Fi security," anyone with the right tools will be able to see that you performed that search.

HTTPS, on the other hand, is the more secure method of sending data back and forth between your computer and a website. It adds what's known as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption to this communication.
While HTTPS provides a good level of security, it's not infallible, and dependent upon the quality of coding on the website's end. For example, when navigating to a secure (HTTPS) website, there is a short period before the security is enabled, when information from the website is sent to your computer. Your computer then uses this information to initiate the secure connection, but if that original transmission was sniffed, hijacked, and/or misdirected, no amount of resulting security measures will keep the data you transmit private.

While you can expect a modicum of privacy when visiting HTTPS websites at a public Wi-Fi hotspot, the security isn't perfect, and you still should refrain from sending passwords over public Wi-Fi networks in general.

Secure Your Computer

First, ditch Internet Explorer. Even today, Internet Explorer is still a huge target for hackers, and continues to have vulnerabilities discovered and exploited. Use a more secure browser, like Safari, Firefox, or Opera to surf the Internet. Then, make sure you install and use a good, reliable firewall offered by a trusted name in the security business. These two tips may be simple, yet they're powerful tools in securing your computer in Wi-Fi hotspots.

Once you've got a VPN installed, a firewall configured and enabled (often this is done out-of-the-box for you already), a decent web browser, and you go to HTTPS addresses whenever you need to send sensitive data, your Wi-Fi security will be nearly impossible for unscrupulous sorts to break.


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