Q My tech-savvy friends warn me about computer-privacy risks when I travel. They say that checking my e-mail while in a Wi-Fi-equipped coffeehouse or an airport is practically an invitation for an unscrupulous person to monitor my messages and even steal my data. Are there any practical ways to protect myself?
A First of all, be aware there is no way to absolutely protect your privacy—even when you’re working at home or at your office. The best you can do is make it hard to crack your security wall. But it’s not particularly hard to create a reasonable level of safety by using the right software and by following prudent guidelines.
E-mailing or Internet surfing in a public place is inherently dangerous. Even a novice hacker can easily eavesdrop on your transmissions. Your first line of defense is your firewall—Windows’ built-in one and your virus-protection suite’s gadget. However, firewalls, by themselves, won’t protect data transmitted over Wi-Fi. Also, be aware that sometimes multiple firewalls don’t work well together. But at least have one engaged. To engage your firewall in XP and in Vista, it’s either under Control Panel or one step deeper, under Security Center.
If you must access your financial institution’s Web site, be sure the first group of letters in its address is https (note that critical letter s at the end), which means the transmitted data is encrypted, and thus relatively safe from prying eyes. If at any point the letter “s” disappears from the URL, stop immediately.
If your e-mail is set up as a POP3/SMTP client, be aware that your transmissions are still somewhat vulnerable to savvy hackers. One way to better protect your privacy is to consider checking if your e-mail provider supports SSL connections, which securely encrypt your transmissions.
Another possibility is the free Gmail service, which does support the encrypted https. To be sure your transmissions use https, log on to your Google e-mail, and open Settings (at the top of the page), and under Browser connection, be sure the Always use https radio button is engaged (see screenshot below).
If you travel a great deal, consider a VPN (virtual private network) service. These services provide an encrypted connection for all your Internet traffic.
Be aware, too, that if you just close the lid on your computer when you pause your work, it’s probably programmed to go into hibernation, which means its memory is recorded so that when you wake it up, it’s ready to start up where you left off. However, if someone steals your computer while it’s in the hibernation state, all a thief has to do is open the lid to access your data. So, for safety, set your computer to require a password to awaken your hibernating computer.
Also, always clear your history after browsing the Web. Unless you’ve reset the defaults, Web browsers remember every site and everything you’ve done on your laptop.
And, finally, be sure you run a comprehensive security software suite—and keep it current.