By John L. Beath
Do you know how easy it is for someone to link up to your computer and steal your passwords, read your e-mail and install programs to remotely control your computer?
I recently traveled to China, home to many digital pirates, digital terrorists, hackers and Wi-Fi bandits. Getting connected while on the road can be wonderful, but it can also be very dangerous if you don’t protect yourself from digital thieves.
Airports and public Wi-Fi locations are a digital thief’s candy store and you could be the proverbial sucker if you aren’t careful. Hackers can access your laptop through fake free Internet connections that are often mistaken as free Wi-Fi offered by many businesses to lure in customers. You think you are signing on to the Internet through a wireless hotspot but are actually connecting to a look-alike network.
A smart hacker can be sitting within 50 feet of you, waiting for you to connect to his false Wi-Fi hotspot. These are called “man in the middle” attacks. Once you connect to the fake hotspot, the attacker has access to your computer and can see exactly what you see on your screen as you surf the Internet. In some cases, they can access your computer or e-mail even after you exit the airport without you ever knowing the intrusion took place.
To avoid such attacks, use caution before connecting to any free hotspots and make sure your laptop security systems are turned on and working. Also, all Wi-Fi devices support some kind of encryption. Encryption technology scrambles messages sent over wireless networks so that they cannot be easily read by humans. Use the strongest form of encryption that works for your network. If possible, use WPA2 encryption, as it is more secure than WEP.
When in airports, never access bank accounts and avoid using your credit card. I carry a pre-paid credit card and use it when forced to pay for Boingo or other Internet connections in airports. If this credit card number is stolen or compromised in any way, it limits my loss of money to whatever is on the pre-paid card. I also use this card when traveling in areas of high pick pocket activity, leaving other credit cards and important wallet contents in the hotel safe.
Make sure your laptop will not automatically connect to wireless Internet hotspots. On a PC, access the Network Connections screen through the Control Panel. Right click “Wireless Network Connection” icon, select “Properties.” Click “Wireless Networks” tab. Go to “Preferred” networks area. Click the “Advanced” link. Choose “Access Point Networks Only.” Remove the check mark next to “Automatically Connect to Non-Preferred Networks.” On a Mac, click on the Airport icon in the top right corner of your screen and choose “Turn Airport Off.”
After checking into my hotel room in Beijing, I hooked the Ethernet cable to my laptop and connected to the Net. After checking my e-mail, I tried to access to my Facebook account. Thirty seconds elapsed before a “This connection is not available or might be temporarily unavailable” message appeared. Then I tried to go to a new Web site my design team was building. The same message appeared again. Then it hit me. My Internet connection was censored. But that wasn’t a problem because I use a proxy server to beat the censors.
This was my seventh trip to China, so this exercise was not new to me. Proxy servers act as an intermediary between your computer and the server of the Web site you are trying to access. After trying six proxy servers, the seventh finally worked and I connected to my Facebook account. After a quick status update to let my friends know I had arrived in Beijing, the page disappeared again. The Chinese censors had obviously gotten better. Even if I found a proxy site that worked, it only worked once before being blocked.
Since the free proxy servers would not work to mask and hide my Internet surfing, the next option was a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A quick Google search of “VPN” brought up dozens of hits to VPN services. I chose Surf Bouncer, based in Anchorage, Alaska. The service costs just $4.99 per week. After downloading their VPN program, I was safely surfing with complete freedom to go where I wanted on the Internet. Communist censorship be damned!
How a VPN works
Once connected to the VPN, your data traveling over the Internet becomes invisible via encryption and is encapsulated, or tunneled, from the underlying network. The censors can’t read traffic to or from your computer. To avoid future censorship, the VPN service uses different servers to remain more anonymous.
A VPN is also one of the most secure methods to surf the Internet from airports or other free Wi-Fi hotspots. However, while the VPN service is not free, it is well worth $5 to protect your laptop from intruders. My uncle lives in Beijing six months out of the year and pays $15 dollars per month for his VPN service. So far, he has surfed without any problems or censorship. If you plan to travel to any country that might not be secure or will be censored, install a VPN on your laptop before you begin your trip. You won’t have to use the service, but it will be available if you need it or when surfing the Net at the airport.
More security tips
- Use encryption software to protect your files, especially passwords and account numbers. Check www.Cnet.com for the latest software.
- Access only legitimate Wi-Fi hotspots and use WAP2 on your computer.
- Use updated firewalls on your laptop. Zone Alarm, Norton Internet Security and AVG Internet Security all work well.
- Use a VPN.
- Schedule regular anti-virus scans for your laptop and run a scan if you have any suspicions or have recently accessed unfamiliar Wi-Fi hotspots.
- Make sure your virus protection is running when you access the Internet from any connection.
John L. Beath is OWAA president and owner of Pacific Lure Communications. He is a writer/photographer and owner/editor of 14 Web sites and 10 online stores. He is also an Internet marketing consultant for several businesses. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.