Surfing safely on public wi-fi

Free wi-fi is becoming ubiquitous at restaurants and coffee shops (Starbucks and Panera Bread are two that come to mind). It’s convenient, but it’s not secure.

Once again, hackers have found a way to ruin the fun for the rest of us. By using nothing more than a laptop or handheld PDA with wireless capability, a malicious individual can establish a spoofed access point that looks identical to the one hosted by the store. If you innocently connect to it, the hacker can capture all of the data you send and receive from your laptop, including passwords.

Worse yet, a hacker can use a public access point to launch exploits — code that attacks known security vulnerabilities in both the wi-fi network hardware and your laptop.

Chances are that the fellow jerking lattes at Starbucks is not a network security expert. Therefore, you need to take basic steps to protect yourself and your equipment.

A article by Jamie Lendino lists four things you can do to protect yourself on public wireless networks, which I will summarize as follows:

1. Keep your shields up. Make sure you have security tools installed on your portable device. Antivirus software is a must, as well as a firewall. The built-in firewall provided with Windows XP is sufficient for most purposes, but if you use a wi-fi network frequently, consider a two-way firewall such as ZoneAlarm. A full suite such as Norton Internet Security will cover all the bases, but it tends to be a resource hog, especially on older laptops.

2. Stay up to date.
Make sure you have installed all the latest updates for both your security software and Windows.

3. Don’t share. Make sure Windows file and print sharing are disabled when you are out in public. It’s a convenience when you’re in the office or at home, but an unnecessary exposure when you’re not.

4. Watch where you’re going. Before entering any personal info on a secure site, make sure it’s secure. Look for https:// in the address bar, as well as the padlock icon on your browser. Better yet, maybe you should think twice before conducting any major financial transactions on a public network.

I don’t want to scare you off using public wi-fi. It can come in very handy sometimes. These four tips are important for any PC use, public or private. But on a public network, they are vital.

Dell sees the light regarding Vista

The two biggest PC companies, Hewlett Packard and Dell, have continued to offer new PCs preloaded with Windows XP, but only to their corporate and small business customers. All new consumer PCs have been offered only with Windows Vista, which is just the way Microsoft wants it.

In February, Dell rolled out a new Web site called IdeaStorm, which gave customers an opportunity to provide feedback and make suggestions regarding Dell products. The day after the site launched, the following message was posted by a user named javaprog07:

“I would like to see both Home and Business computers, especially notebooks, have an XP Home and Pro option on top of Vista until it has at least been out for a year.”

It was the first of many requests. On April 19, Dell responded.

“We heard you loud and clear on bringing the Windows XP option back to our Dell consumer PC offerings,” began the message.

Dell has announced that they will now offer Windows XP Home and Windows XP Professional on a handful of models — on two Dimension desktops, the E520 and E521, and four Inspiron laptops, the 1405, 1705, 1505 and 1501.

In case you’re still fearless, consider this message I received from a client yesterday.

Heard a horror story from my brother tonight…He just bought a brand new laptop with Vista on it. Said it took him 3 hours on the phone just to get the DSL operating as they are not equipped to work with Vista – no software or whatever. Then when he hooked up his printer, which is only 1 year old – he went online to get the software updated, and they didn’t have anything that would work with Vista. He ended up going out to get a new printer, and then he still had trouble. He was ready to chuck the whole thing. He finally got everything hooked up but he spent a whole lot of time getting it together. Was he mad. He said that the software for all of the hardware is not up to date with Vista. One more reason not to get Vista.

I have heard similar stories from many sources. Hardware manufacturers are notoriously slow to develop drivers for new operating systems. We went through the same thing with XP.

Give it a year.

Beware of Geek

There’s a report out of the Los Angeles area that a lawsuit has been filed against Best Buy and their Geek Squad by a young woman and her mother, after a Geek dispatched to their house allegedly used a cell phone to record video of the 22-year old woman showering.

Hao Kuo Chi has been arrested on suspicion of using a camera to view a person without their consent, and of annoying or molesting a child under 18. Chi is alleged to have also placed the camera phone in the bedroom of the woman’s younger sister, who is 13.

Wired has more on the story, which they have dubbed the “Peek Squad” incident.

Now, this is an unfortunate situation, and Mr. Chi is certainly an isolated case, assuming the charges are legitimate. Geek Squad is very careful about screening its techs, but incidents like this are likely to happen when a giant, faceless corporation tries to implement the “personal touch” required for our sort of business. When you invite us, whether Geek or Wizard, into your home, trust is our most valuable asset. We are nothing without it.