Free wireless access points (WAPs) are a very welcome convenience for our mobile lives. Whether at the airport, hotel, library, coffee shop, or even finding a neighbor that has not secured his home wireless network, you do not have to travel very far to quickly hop on to the information superhighway.
However, these free WAPs come with a price in the form of security. Free WAPs that you find out in public generally do not include enough security to protect the data you send from your laptop to the access point itself. The places that offer free wireless access usually configure a wide open access point with very little security to ensure that most people can connect with the least amount of configuration on their laptops. This makes it possible for just about anyone to connect successfully without having to distract a store employee with troubleshooting questions. While this is good from an ease of use standpoint, the tradeoff leaves a very insecure and open network that you must be aware of.
The openness of these networks mean that whatever data you transmit from your laptop to the Internet is openly obtainable and viewable by anyone else within the vicinity and connected to the very same free WAP that you are connected to. So when you type in your email account name and password while sitting at the library, anyone else in there with free and easy to use tools can capture and save your information for later use. This goes for just about anything that you type and submit into a web form – banking login information, credit card numbers (with your expiration date and security code), ID’s and passwords. As you can see, without taking proper steps, that free wireless access at McDonald’s can have dire consequences.
Rest assured, for we are here to help with that!
These days, most people should have a secure way to browse the Internet via these free access points through a work provided Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN is essentially a private and encrypted connection between your PC and the Internet gateway that is handling your web traffic.
Some companies provide a VPN application installed on your laptop or a secure website that you can browse to as soon as you get an internet connection to create a safe and encrypted Internet session. This encrypts, or scrambles, the plain text data you type on your keyboard and makes it extremely difficult to capture and decrypt by someone trying to steal your information.
If your company does not provide you a VPN that you can use, or if you are using your personal laptop and/or do not want to funnel your browsing traffic through your work – using a work VPN will allow your employer to see what you are up to when using their gateway – you need to come up with something else to protect yourself with.
If you have ever visited a friend or relative and needed them to ‘get you on their network’ or had to configure your wireless network card with a network name, security type, and password, then you are familiar with the idea of taking steps to protect the data that you are wirelessly transmitting over the open air. This could take the place of using a VPN because you are encrypting the data that is being sent from your PC to the WAP/router.
Without a work provided VPN and without configuring wireless security, what options do you have?
I have recently started using a free product called Hotspot Shield from AnchorFree. Hotspot Shield is a VPN application that protects data from your PC to the Internet over wireless connections. You need to download and install the application before you can use it. When you run Hotspot Shield, it puts an interactive icon in your system tray and you can easily connect and disconnect by right-clicking on it. That is really all there is to it to provide safe open access point browsing.
When you connect to the VPN, you are connecting to an internet gateway that is owned by Hotspot Shield and your data passes securely to it and through it as it reaches the Internet. Now, if I have explained this to you properly, you are probably wondering how safe and secure are the Hotspot Shield servers – give yourself a gold star if you are. The answer is that I have no idea. They could be stealing all of your information and using it for nefarious purposes! I do not think that is the case which is why I have researched, tested, and presented this as an option for you.
I have found that AnchorFree first offered the free VPN solution in about 2006. It has undergone many revisions since then and is endorsed by PC Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and TWiT. I have read several reviews that talk about pop-up/banner ads and transfer limitations, but I have not personally seen any ads or experienced any connectivity or bandwidth issues.
The bottom line is that is very unwise to use a free wireless access point without any form of security. While I still would never perform a credit card transaction or log into any banking sites on a public network, the free Hotspot Shield VPN application should provide adequate protection for email and other surfing when you are at a hotel, at an airport, or using any number of other free access points.
Agree? disagree? Do you have a different experience with the product? Please let us know!