By James Grant, Team Lead and Senior Developer
I was recently traveling and wanted to keep in touch with both work and the world. I packed my laptop and was off. On arrival, the hotel clerk proudly told me that the hotel offered free Internet over Wi-Fi, no encryption to worry about. Great! I guess…
Confession: I get a little paranoid about security so I'm thinking through all the ways this could go wrong: the person in the next room is going to see all my Internet traffic because it is going over the airwaves like a cell phone call; the person in the next room will try to hack into my computer; the person in the next room will see my email address and I will get more spam. I need a new room! But wait, everyone in the hotel can see my traffic– as well as anyone driving by! Well, the good news is that not everything you do on the Internet puts you at risk.
The first thing I wanted to do was check email at work. My company uses a VPN to support email access, so I can do that safely. I am free to use a public Wi-Fi link because a snoop will not try to decrypt my VPN traffic to read the emails. The VPN is the strongest link in the chain, not the weakest link.
The next thing I wanted to do was check my personal email at Gmail. There I have to be a bit more careful. I deliberately go to https://gmail.google.com (instead of http://…)because then Gmail gives me an encrypted connection (safe). If I just typed gmail.google.com, my login would be encrypted, but the emails I read and wrote would be unencrypted and any snooper could see them! Remember: whenever you see "https" at the start of the link in your browser, it means you're a lot safer than "http".
Checking online news
With that done, I wanted to check the news. Now I personally don't care who knows what news articles I read, so I freely went to my favorites:
Then I wanted to check what was happening at Facebook. Darn. That's where I caught myself and chose to wait. Facebook encrypts the actual login, but after that it isn't as safe. Snoopers could learn the email address I use to log in as well as my profile ID (every Facebook member has a unique profile ID).
They also might be able to get my "session token": information that lets them connect to Facebook as if they were me. I could be wrong, like I said, I get a little paranoid. So I did not connect to Facebook over the unencrypted Wi-Fi.
Banking and other private activities
What else would I not recommend in a public setting?
- banking – even if the connection is encrypted, I reveal what bank I use
- online investments – same as banking, only more money at stake
- private activities: IM, political activities, porn (no, I'm
not confessing anything here. It's you, Dear Reader, I am thinking of!)
Avoid all of these things on unencrypted Wi-Fi, unless you use a service like Anonymizer Anonymous Surfing. With a service like Anonymizer, everything works the same but your network traffic gets routed through their server using an encrypted connection. Snoopers can't tell where you're going or what you're sending.
What about public computers?
A final note about using a public computer (library, conference, hotel, etc.) I would not log on to any account of mine on a public computer, even if it were an encrypted https: website. The computer might have a virus or other tool for logging everything you type. Think of a public computer as having the public looking over your shoulder.