Wi-Fi `klatch' security a worry


May 27, 2004|By James Coates | James Coates,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

I have Wi-Fi and cellular service through T-Mobile, and I'm wondering how best to secure it from electronic interlopers at the next table at Starbucks.

Based on your previous columns, I installed the Zone Alarm firewall. Is there anything I need to turn on or off in XP to keep someone from using one of these radio-based systems to peek in my PC or perhaps load in a virus?

First of all, remember that you could be sharing a room with gadget-armed hackers with stuff like telephoto digital camcorders, directional microphones and, of course, their own laptops connected to the same hot-spot network.

So before turning to technology for protection, start out by using your body to block the view of your keyboard to prevent outsiders from filming you logging on to various Web sites and creating documents.

You're right on the money about using a firewall like Zone Alarm. At the very least, everybody should have activated the Windows Internet Connection firewall. Search for that term in the Help section under the Start menu to find the check box to activate the firewall.

Beyond a firewall, if at all possible, do your work-related computing using your company's virtual private network, or VPN, which encrypts data in both directions.

If you're just there surfing as a consumer, consider that there is more danger of somebody using technologies like packet sniffers or air snorts to intercept what you send and receive than there is of anybody cracking into your computer and stealing stuff or installing viruses using the wireless network.

So avoid sending or receiving e-mail messages from Web-based services because they use clear text. If you must use Hotmail or Yahoo, etc., write your notes in your word processor and attach them as binary files instead of using the text input tools in the Web browser. Better yet, encrypt the files.

Make sure that the Secure Sockets Layer is in place for other e-mail accounts and for Web sites where privacy is desired. To see if a Web page is secure, look at its address in the browser bar to make sure it starts with https:// rather than http://.

SSL-protected sites also cause a locked padlock icon to appear in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window.

In summary: Don't trust your fellow coffee drinkers any further than you can toss a cappuccino machine. Do as little e-mailing as possible, watch every move you make on every Web site and keep your keyboard hidden from prying eyes.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. James Coates may be contacted via e-mail at jcoates@ tribune.com.

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