Wireless Security for your Laptop

Liquid Cocaine Do you practice safe wireless? If you don’t, you might catch something and your OS will shrivel up and, um, get a bad rash.

Okay, bad analogy. But still, if you’re like me and work in cafes with free wifi all day long, you’re going to need to make sure your laptop, web surfing, emails, and instant messages are safe & secure.

How secure are they currently? Well, a script kiddie could be sitting right next to you with a packet sniffer, which allows him to read all of the emails and IMs you’re currently writing and reading. And if you, Heaven forbid, log onto an unencrypted website, he could steal your username and password too. This is especially common in Silicon Valley, where there’s a high concentration of free wifi and malicious script kiddies.

Freaked out? You should be. Not afraid? In my best Yoda impression: Oh, you will be, you will be…

After doing a quick search online, I found this article by Scott Granneman: “Coffee shop WiFi for dummies“. It’s one of the better columns on laptop security using wifi connections. In it, he suggests:

  • Secure Connections: Using a wifi connection with WEP or WPA encryption. Unfortunately, they aren’t that secure, and most cafes with free wifi don’t offer it anyways.
  • Secure Web Browsers: Using Firefox, Opera, or Safari for your web browser, instead of Internet Explorer, because of all the security holes that have been found in IE.
  • Secure HTTP: Using websites that use the encrypted protocol https instead of plain ole’ http (without the “s”). The “s” stands for “secure” – well, to be accurate, it stands for Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), but you get the point.
  • Secure Webmail: Using Gmail instead of Yahoo! Mail or MSN Hotmail, because Gmail allows you to use it over https. However, you have to manually change the URL and add the “s” before the “http”, unless you install the Customize Gmail extension for Firefox (sorry Opera & Safari users).
  • Secure Email Protocols: Using secure POP3 or secure IMAP for receiving your emails, if you don’t use a webmail service like Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or Hotmail. Unfortunately, sending emails is tougher because most cafes don’t offer secure SMTP. Those webmail services solve this though.
  • Secure Instant Messaging: Using GAIM Pidgin for instant messaging, since it supports AIM, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, Google Talk, etc., as well as encrypted IMs using SILC.

All of that adds to up quite a bit of work and extra software. And even with all these safeguards, your web surfing still isn’t secure. If you don’t have https set up for your blog, logging in to post a new entry could potentially expose your username and password. Jeepers creepers, what’s a cafe-working entrepreneur to do?

That’s where VPN could be the answer. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) would basically encrypt your entire online activity. You wouldn’t need to bother with all of Granneman’s safeguards if you could use a VPN.

The downside is that getting VPN not free. Most businesses offer VPN for their employees. But if you’re an entrepreneur, are self-employed, or don’t have access to a VPN, are you out of luck? Fortunately, no. Another search turned up Mark Ratledge’s article “Make Wi-Fi safe with private network“, where he discusses three commercial VPN services. Glenn Fleishman’s article “The Latest VPN for Rent” adds a fourth choice.

  • PublicVPN.com: $5.95/month or $59.95/year, no software download required.
  • JiWire Hotspot Helper: $24.95/year, software download required.
  • WiTopia personalVPN: $39.99/year, software download required.
  • HotSpotVPN: their pricing scheme is complicated. $10.88/month for 128-bit encryption, $11.88/month for 192-bit, and $13.88/month for 256-bit, software download required.

Ratledge recommends PublicVPN because it doesn’t require a software download, despite it being the most expensive option. I don’t really mind a software download, so I’m going to give the cheaper options a try.

If you also depend on free wifi, I’d strongly suggest you use wireless protection (which makes me wonder: is wificondom.com available? Why yes, it is, as of this post!). Any of the free methods above could work. Or, if you want to pay for blanket protection, consider one of the commercial VPN services listed here. If you have used one before, what do you think of it? Any good?

Nothing hurts more than catching something that could have been easily prevented, especially from a dirty, stinking script kiddie. Don’t be high, use protected wifi!

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

3 thoughts on “Wireless Security for your Laptop”

  1. hi..one comment. witopia includes an openvpn based vpn (which requires a software download) *and* a PPTP VPN that requires no software download. witopia’s offering is same as hotspotvpn2 (openvpn + PPTP) but for much lower price.

    publicvpn is just pptp, which hotspotvpn and witopia sort of include for free. it’s not a technical advantage or anything. witopia and hsvpn use openvpn as primary because most people would agree it is superior security.

    I realize this was more that rattledge fellow’s comments, but just so you lknow…paying *more* for just pptp is ignorance.

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