2011-04-22 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Wi-Fi Hotspot Privacy
By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer


AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER These days connecting to the Internet can be as easy as turning on your cell phone or tablet computer. Unfortunately, with the convenience and connectivity these mobile devices provide some new security concerns. This is especially true for those who frequently obtain access to the Internet using public wireless networks, also known as “hot spots.” Many browse the Internet unaware that their connection may not be entirely secure. Software programs known as packet sniffers are one of the main tools used by thieves to steal personal information. These programs allow users to view wireless transactions occurring near them and to capture the credit card numbers, passwords, and other sensitive information used in those transactions. Fortunately, there are several measures that can be taken to protect your security when using a hotspot.

First, it is important to determine whether a hot spot is secure. When looking for a wireless network to join, your laptop or mobile device will scan the immediate area for networks and display the options available. You should assume that networks that do not require a password are not secure. Those that do require a password may be secure, but the level of protection may vary based on the type of encryption employed. Experts recommend that consumers use networks with Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption (WPA or WPA2), which is the most secure, and is now the industry standard. It is best to avoid any network that does not provide WPA or WPA2 encryption. If you are unsure of the type of encryption used by a particular network, you should ask an employee or manager of the business or facility before connecting to the network. In the event that a WPA-encrypted network is unavailable and you need to log on to the Internet via an unsecured, or less secure, network, avoid entering any sensitive personal information, such as your bank account or credit card numbers, sending e-mail, or posting information to social networking sites while using the network.

Another way you can keep your information safe while using hot spots is by using a virtual private network, also known as a V.P.N., which, using software installed on your laptop or mobile device, encrypts your data, making it unreadable to would-be thieves. Many companies offer

V.P.N.s to employees who work outside of the office. If you regularly use hot spots to obtain access to the Internet, and your company does not offer V.P.N.s, you may want to consider subscribing to a service that offers the same protection, most of which are available for an average of ten dollars a month.

If you simply wish to shield your screen from prying eyes, consider buying a screen filter such as 3M’s Notebook Privacy Filter, which makes it impossible to read a laptop screen from an angle.

Under New York Law, businesses that maintain public hot spots must post a notice advising users to implement computer security measures, such as ensuring that the computer’s firewall is activated, while using the wireless network. Businesses can comply with the law’s requirements by posting a sign in their establishment or by integrating the warning notice into the logon procedure of the wireless network.

To learn more about wireless Internet security, you may visit the Federal Trade Commission’s OnGuard Online website at http://www.onguardonline. gov/topics/hotspots.aspx

You may also want to visit GetNet Wise’s Spotlight on Wireless Security website at http://spotlight.getnetwise.org/wireless/.

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