Wireless freedom is open to spies

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People should take security precautions when using public Wi-Fi networks, like the one in Downtown Pittsburgh and at sports venues.

Public Wi-Fi networks often are unsecured, says Chris Faulkner, CEO of CI Host, a Dallas-based Web-hosting company, which manages Web sites and e-mail for 350,000 clients worldwide.

"With Wi-Fi being unsecured, you don't know who is listening or watching," he says. "It's very hard to protect your data, even if you're computer savvy. It's hard to detect an evil twin [network]."

Unscrupulous types using the same wireless network can use software on their laptops to spy on what you're doing on yours.

"What Web sites you're going to, what data you're putting into a browser, anything you're sending across the connection, they can see," Mr. Faulkner says.

Cyber thieves also can set up wireless hotspots on their laptops and give them names similar to the legitimate wireless access point -- which in the case of Pittsburgh is "Wi-Fi Pittsburgh" -- tricking you into connecting to their network. If you mistakenly connect to an evil twin network, a stranger can capture all the information being sent across the connection, Mr. Faulkner says.

To protect your computer and the information sent when using public Wi-Fi:

Make sure you have a personal firewall to block the "open [access] holes" in your laptop and let you know if someone is trying to use your connection.

Turn off the automatic connect function on your wireless network, doing manual connections instead.

"Otherwise, after you connect to it once, every time you're in the vicinity of [that Wi-Fi connection], it will automatically connect without even asking," Mr. Faulkner says.

Turn off shared folders on your laptop so others on the network can't copy files on your computer.

Don't use instant messaging programs via Wi-Fi if you're concerned about the security and privacy of your messages.

Don't check e-mail if you're on a Wi-Fi hotspot because your password isn't secure. If you do check your e-mail via Wi-Fi, change your password later.

The public name of a wireless access point also is known as its SSID, and usually there are signs in Wi-Fi areas stating the name of the access point. If you're uncertain about the name of a Wi-Fi access point because it's not posted, assume that people can see what you're doing on the Internet, Mr. Faulkner says.

Public Wi-Fi never should be used for online banking or any financial matters.

Also, if you check into a corporate network from your laptop via Wi-Fi, consider getting a VPN, a virtual private network, which encrypts information.

For a monthly fee, the Web site HotSpotVPN.com offers software that provides various degrees of encryption to protect data at Wi-Fi hotspots.

Pittsburgh Wi-Fi users get two free hours of access a day. US Wireless, which operates Pittsburgh's Wi-Fi, also offers subscriptions for those wanting better security, more time and higher speeds. Subscribers can pay $7.99 a day, $14.99 a month or $119.99 a year.


L.A. Johnson can be reached at ljohnson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3903.


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