Q. How can I secure my notebook at public Wi-Fi hotspots?
A. Since public hotspots generally don't use encryption, you should assume that anyone can see your internet traffic unless you take precautions.
- To set up pirate routers with familiar SSID names like "wayport" or "t-mobile," and then use them to capture unsuspecting users' log-on information and other private data.
- Verify that your PC's software firewall is turned on, and that Windows' file-sharing feature is off: It's off by default in Windows XP with Service Pack 2. To check this setting, open Control Panel and choose Windows Firewall (you may have to click Security Center first in XP or Security in Vista). In XP, select the Exceptions tab, and look in the Programs and Services to make sure 'File and Printer Sharing' is unchecked. In Vista, click Change settings, then select the Exceptions tab and follow the instructions for XP.
- Never send bank passwords, credit card numbers, confidential email, or other sensitive data unless you're sure you're on a secure site: Look for the lock icon in the bottom-right corner of your browser, as well as a URL in the address bar that begins with https. Such sites build in their own encryption.
- Always turn your Wi-Fi radio off when you're not at a hotspot: Hackers can use it to create peer-to-peer Wi-Fi connections with your computer and access it directly.
- For better security, consider signing up for a paid subscription to a hotspot network such as Boingo or T-Mobile: Both companies provide connection software that encrypts your sessions automatically.
Q. What's a VPN, and how do I get one?
A. The best way to protect a public wireless link is by using a virtual private network, or VPN. VPNs keep your communications safe by creating secure 'tunnels' through which your encrypted data travels.
Many companies provide VPN service to their mobile and offsite workers, so check with your IT department for connection instructions.
You have one more security option. If you don't mind connecting through your home or office PC, you can log in to a public hotspot securely by using such remote-access programs as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC.