January 1, 2009

Safe computing from hot spots and other public networks (part one)

This article is the first in a four-part series about safe computing on public networks.
This first article lists some basic precautions you can take. Parts two and three are about using SSL and VPNs to secure your communications, and part four will list some computer settings that you should change when using public networks.
When using a laptop on an insecure network, such as a public hot spot or a hotel network, others may be able to eavesdrop on your communications, especially when you connect wirelessly. You need to take some precautions to guard against attacks such as “shoulder surfing”, wireless “traffic sniffing”, and rogue access points.
Here are some basic precautions:
1) First and foremost, don’t use public networks for secure communications if you can avoid it. Do you really need to do your banking, trade stocks, or check your credit card balances from a public network? If you really do, you should use a VPN to connect to a secure network and access the internet from there.
2) Don’t store ANY sensitive data on your laptop that does not ABSOLUTELY need to be there. Instead, store it on a computer that is more secure and protected at home or at the office and access it through a VPN. Think about it – most of the sensitive data that is on laptops does not need to be there!
3) If you do not need to connect wirelessly to access the internet, TURN THE WIRELESS OFF. Almost all laptops have an easy way to do this – know how to do it on your laptop.
4) Pay attention to your physical surroundings, your position, and who is (or could be) watching. Don’t overlook the low-tech approach to stealing passwords – shoulder-surfing. A small concealed camera with a zoom lens can record keystrokes just as efficiently as a key-logger. Position yourself so that others do not have a clear view of your keyboard or screen. Use your body to shield the keyboard from view in public areas.
Dennis H – August 19, 2008

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