How to Secure Wi-Fi & Browse Safely While Traveling

How to Secure Wi-Fi & Browse Safely While Traveling

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Photo by Flickr user spanaut.
Photo by Flickr user spanaut.

As a traveler in the 21st century, I carry my laptop with me on trips, and my smartphone stays within arm’s reach wherever I wander; these are just items I’m not willing to forego while abroad. Each new day sees the emergence of some new technology; however, with these never-ending advances comes new ways for wrongdoers to wreak havoc on what’s supposed to be a pleasurable and memorable time. When I’m at home, I have the comfort and security of connecting to my private networks and my cheap, domestic plan for data on my phone, but when I am abroad, I dare not test my home carrier’s ability to charge me exorbitant roaming fees. Therefore, I am reliant on my host country’s offerings, and thus, their security.

According to the Norton Cybercrime Reports (2011, 2012), the proportion of social-network users who reported their accounts hacked was 1 in 10 in 2011, and 1 in 6 in 2012!

Update & Upgrade

Before venturing off on that next trip, spend the time (and perhaps a little money) to make sure that the antivirus/antispyware software is up to date. All it takes is a simple download, which your system should be doing for you regularly, almost on a daily basis, anyway. And don’t forget your phone! There are myriad options now available to protect your mobile browsing habits, and it is even more worth it while traveling. Mobile applications range from some decent free ones to high-end, monthly-billed options that offer military-grade security.

Just Ask…

Using the free wi-fi internet at a café may be just as appealing as the same idea back home; actually, it may be more of a necessity while abroad, as opposed to the simple convenience it provides while at home. Since these hotspots are public, you of course shouldn’t use them to access any personal or identifying accounts and services, such as online banking or shopping; this is how identity theft begins, usually, leading to stolen account information, compromised passwords, and perhaps a block on your bank account as your financial institution sorts the mess out – that would really suck while you’re abroad, wouldn’t it?

The first rule to remember when attempting to use a free public hotspot is to ask for the correct network name or SSID (Service Set Identifier) from the barista or whoever is managing the counter. You might think that you’ll figure out which network is theirs by noting things such as its locked/unlocked status or signal strength, but these are mistakes hackers seek out and exploit; they may set up a network nearby that seems legitimate, and upon connecting to it, will possibly glean personal information, or much worse. Keep in mind that signal strength is never a good indicator of the network of the establishment that you’re in – even in my own apartment I get stronger signals from my neighbors!

… and Then Forget It

Say you’re using your smartphone in a coffee shop. When you leave, you assume that your phone will be out of range within a few steps and lose the connection automatically. This may be true, but a hacker nearby could have a network set up nearby with the same name as the shop you just left; your phone, if you have the wi-fi radio on and the network ID remembered, may connect to it, assuming that it was the legit one, opening you up to the same menu of disastrous possibilities. The recommended course of action when your phone, tablet, or laptop prompts you is to forget the network for future use. Meaning, if you are using a public wi-fi connection, connect to it once without enabling the system to reconnect to it again automatically should your device encounter it in the future.

Also, you may have some networks that you’ve saved from your various places at home, such as your personal and work internet networks. However, you should clean the slate and forget ALL networks when going abroad, just to be safe.

Keelung City free Wi-Fi sign. Taken by Wikimedia Commons user Solomon203.
Keelung City free Wi-Fi sign. Taken by Wikimedia Commons user Solomon203.

Leave it Off

When your phone is in your pocket, it may be a nuisance to turn the phone on and off each time you want to connect to the internet at a new public hotspot, but at least turn off the wi-fi radio. If there is no available connection, there is no wireless way for a hacker to get to you, at least via wi-fi.

Turn Off Sharing

Whether on a Windows PC or Apple/Mac or other, remember to turn off sharing. At home, you may have your computer set to share files and folders with other users on the same network, but this could lead to trouble. Even if the free wi-fi hotspot you are connecting to is marked as “public” by you, and thus not given the same sharing allowances as your safe “home” networks, you are disabling one extra layer of protection should someone breach that initial defense.

Use Long and Strong Passwords

Remember to use a strong and long password for each website you access. Make all of them different, so just in case someone cracks one, they don’t get access to your entire life. If you have one password for convenience’ sake while at home, at least change them (the few that you know you’ll access) to different ones while you are traveling. If you are forgetful like me, you can use applications such as Keepass for Windows or 1Password for the Mac, which can automatically fill out your passwords in websites as well as your name and address info in web forms.

Purchase a Local SIM

There are times when you might not be able to avoid logging on to your bank account while abroad, especially when traveling takes a bigger chunk out of your balance than your everyday spending, usually. When you need to do something such as this, the best way to go about it is to buy a local SIM card and use your mobile phone and the SIM’s accompanying data plan to log in more securely. The mobile carriers’ networks are generally more secure than most free hotspots, and using the local data plan will save you from having a stroke when you get your next mobile phone statement. Any service that you have back home which would be roaming while abroad is using one of the local networks anyway through a partnership agreement; save yourself the exorbitant rates by going straight to the source, rather than through your home carrier as a middleman.

Don’t POP & Add That Extra ‘S’

When logging into email on a public or unsecured network, use the https:// version, if at all possible. This extra ‘s’ logs in to the SSL-encrypted version of the site, and works for popular email providers such as Gmail. Also, if you have some kind of desktop email client on your laptop, such as Microsoft Outlook, try to avoid your email accounts connecting via the standard POP or SMTP protocols; these send passwords and other email across the wires as plain text, without encrypting them, allowing hackers nearby an easier time should they try to access your emails as they are sent and received. If the email provider offers it, use a secured version of POP or SMTP; otherwise, log in to the email over the web (using the https://). Typing in https:// works for many other websites that require you to log in, as well.

Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

A virtual private network, or VPN, is essentially a network that is running within a network. When you’re surfing at a coffee shop and using their free wi-fi, often enough it may not be password-protected. And even if it is, that is but a small hurdle to pass for some determined hackers. A VPN scrambles your inbound and outbound data by encrypting it at a high level. These are, for the most part, paid subscription plans, but will give you a greater sense of security. Another perk of a VPN: websites you log in to will see your traffic as coming from the country of your VPN, not where you actually are; this could be useful, such as in Myanmar, where there are sanctions in place that block online banking, for example, or for accessing other banned sites, such as social media, in some countries.

… and finally,

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

The easiest way to steal your data would be, literally, for someone to just glance over your shoulder while you are typing in your password. In public places, you need to be vigilant. Keep in mind that people are especially more prone to letting down their guard when in a foreign country or location where the local language is different; the psychology is: I can’t understand them, so they can’t understand me (and thus, what I’m typing or looking at). This, of course, is a subconscious trick, so stay conscious about it! Also, invest in a security screen, which is a thin plastic sheet that sticks to your screen and drastically reduces the angles at which the screen can be effectively viewed; ideally, only the person directly in front of the laptop monitor will be able to see the display.

Christian "Krzysiek" Eilers is a twenty-something who constantly likes to look up the next flight out of JFK. His life goal is to visit every country in the world; as a young adult working full-time, he often settles on visiting the near countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean, knocking these off the list as it is less of a financial strain than Europe or Asia. Caffeine is his vice, and if he doesn't have a coffee in his hands, then it's probably a green tea. A native of New York City, when he is not traveling, he can find an abundance of cultural influences right in his own city, enough to keep him satisfied until the next country's beckon cannot be ignored any longer.

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