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Using public computers

All may not necessarily be as it seems...

I have just spent three weeks in Washington and New York. As a writer, I strongly believe in 'have laptop, will travel'. It's easy for me to connect to my server, which runs Small Business Server 2003, to pick up email and synchronise my diary wherever I am.

I take a laptop, a PocketPC with a wireless internet connection and a smartphone which can hook up using GPRS. I'm very connected and it really works.

But then I started worrying about the risks. Well, it's kind of my job to do that but a few things made me genuinely nervous.

I'd be in mid-town Manhattan and I'd try to connect to a wireless access point using my PocketPC. I have accounts with Boingo and T-Mobile. But how do I know that the access points I'm connecting to on the corner of 8th and 54th Street are really what they seem to be?

In my hotel room in New York, I use an Ethernet cable to connect to the hotel's broadband connection. Great. But how do I know that someone in the hotel isn't eavesdropping on my email and internet connection? I've had credit cards cloned in the best hotel in Switzerland, so I know that criminals sometimes work in hotels.

In Washington, I use an internet cafe to pick up my email. How can I be sure there's no spyware on the computer I use?

Protect yourself in an internet cafe

That got me thinking, and I reviewed the advice I could find online. In internet cafes, there are several critical things you can do to protect yourself:

Take care of your personal belongings. If someone gets your password AND your handbag or briefcase, it's game over.

Don't leave the computer unattended.

Be careful who is watching over your shoulder.

If possible, choose reputable, well-run internet cafes. Look for ones that erase and reinstall the computer between each user.

Use a web-based spyware detection program to scan for spyware before using a public PC. Try one of these:


PC Tools

Zone Labs

Protect passwords. Before going online, click Internet Options on the tools menu. On the Content tab, click AutoComplete. Uncheck the four boxes. When you finish surfing, go back to the same options page and click Clear Forms and Clear Passwords.

Cover your tracks. When you finish surfing with Microsoft Internet Explorer, click Internet Options on the tools menu. On the General tab, click Delete Files and Delete Cookies. Then click Clear History.

Exercise caution. Avoid financial transactions that might reveal valuable passwords or personal information like credit card numbers.

Use an email system that protects your connection using a secure web link. Luckily, Outlook Web Access uses an encrypted connection so it is very hard to eavesdrop. Other webmail systems also use SSL. Look for the yellow padlock.

Don't go wireless unless you go safe

Wireless networks offer tremendous flexibility but you have to be careful about who may be listening in and how you connect to the internet.

Choose reputable hotspot providers such as BT or T-Mobile.

Disable wireless networking when you're not using it.

Turn off ad-hoc mode on your network card. Only allow connections to access points.

Be wary of transmitting critical information over a public wireless access point but if you do, ensure that you are using a secure web page.

For access to corporate networks, use a secure, encrypted VPN.

What next?

Find wireless hotspots in the UK in bCentral's easy-to-use directory. Just tap in your postcode, and we'll show you the nearest hotspots on a map.

Matthew Stibbe writes a new column every fortnight. Sign up to receive them automatically by email.

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