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How to Protect your Computer When Connected to Unsecured WiFi

written by: J. Forlanda•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 6/27/2011

In today's Internet culture, many businesses are providing free wireless hotspots. The service may not cost you a dime, but it may cost you your identity if you don't know how to protect your computer or watch what you do at these free hotspots.

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    Wireless Hotspot Wireless hotspots are so prevalent that whereever you go, you might find your laptop or your portable device connecting to some unsecured ones. The goal of this article is to teach you how to protect your computer and how to behave when using free wireless hotspots. After reading this article you will know:

    • About basic computer security
    • Two security facts about free or public wireless hotspots
    • What you should and shouldn't do when on a public wireless hotspot
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    Basic Computer Security

    Almost everyone knows that your computer must have some form of virus or malware protection. If you cannot afford one, there are several free solutions out there. has several topics that discuss this and present various options--case in point is the article titled "Really is it 'free'-List of totally free Antivirus software". If you don't install one, your computer is sure to pick up a virus/malware soon.

    Don't wait; install an antivirus or an anti-malware program, and begin safe computing now! This becomes even more important when you consider connecting to a public wireless hotspot where one or more computers could be infected with some form of virus/mal-ware designed to spread itself quickly to other computers in the network vicinity and eventually to the Internet.

    Again, practice basic safe computing; at the very least install some form of antivirus or anti-malware program.

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    Two Security Facts about Wireless Hotspots

    In order to do a good job of protecting your computer as well as your actions/behavior at free or public wireless hotspots you need to know some basic security facts regarding them:

    1. It is a network where all computers are sharing the same Internet connection
    2. Any computer on the wireless hotspot potentially can see the data being sent/received by other computers

    The first fact is simple. Anyone with a computer and a wireless network interface can be on the wireless hotspot--especially if it is not secure. "Anyone" could easily be a malicious hacker who collects user login credentials and other private/personal information (e.g. name, address, social security number, birth date, credit card numbers, and so on).

    The second fact isn't obvious to most computer users. Network traffic on a wireless network can be read by any computer in that network. There are free tools out there that can tap into the wireless network and capture the data transmissions of all the computers connected to a hotspot. Take a look at this article I wrote on just such a tool called WireShark for Protocol Analysis and Troubleshooting, and read the section on "Be a hacker: Capture login credentials and watch network communications". You will find that it doesn't take much technical skill to tap into a hotspot.

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    DOs and DON'Ts when on a Public Hotspot

    Knowing the two basic security facts about free wireless hotspots tells you how you ought to behave when surfing the web using free WiFi hotspots. Just in case it isn't obvious, here are a few to get you started.


    These are some DON'Ts:

    • Don't communicate private or confidential information on non-secure web sites or Internet applications; these are sites where the URL starts with "HTTP://" or "FTP://".
    • Don't log in to web sites that do not use secure protocols like HTTPS . If you log in to unsecured web sites, your log in credentials are exposed to anyone who could be snooping on the hotspot.
    • Don't use email though your Outlook Express or other email client programs because these programs use non-secure Internet protocols like POP and SMTP.
    • Don't connect to unsecured wireless hotspot automatically; configure your computer not to automatically connect to a wireless network. This will prevent you from accidentally exposing private/confidential information because you might think you are on a secure network when in fact you are not.


    These are some examples of things you can do without any privacy fears:

    • Browse the Internet so long as what you look at or do doesn't involve divulging personal or private information. For example, you might just be doing article searches, reading the news, or just viewing some videos.
    • Do use secure web sites or Internet applications. Sites that use "HTTPS://" or SSL encrypt their data payload which keeps your data private.
    • Do configure your wireless network interface so that it doesn't automatically connect to any unsecured wireless network. This will prevent accidental exposure.
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    At this point, you should at least know the following:

    • If you computer has no virus protection, you should get it now. Even if you don't have money there are many free ones out there.
    • You are sharing the network when you are connected to a public wireless hotspot. Malicious hackers can capture any unencrypted traffic flying through the wireless network.
    • Exercise the DOs and DON'Ts of when on a public wireless hotspot.

    Keeping these things in mind should go a long way towards a secure wireless internet surfing experience.