As people head out of their offices to work, we thought we would remind people about wireless security and Wi-Fi hotspots. y. Most public wireless networks are insecure. Too many people still connect to these hotspots without taking security precautions. We have some suggestions even if you or your company doesn't have a VPN.
Many wireless hotspots are open networks and focus on convenience, not security. Most wireless providers rely on you to take their own precautions when making a wireless connection with their network. In some cases, employees at wifi hotspots are prohibited from touching customer computers and few are familiar with wireless security. The other side is too few users ask questions or believe their software firewall provides enough protection.
You need to remember a wireless network is a shared medium like radio waves. The sent data can be viewed by anyone with the right equipment much as radios pick up stations based on a frequency. Unless security measures are taken, your data can be seen. Moreover, what you're sending is more apt to be passwords or confidential data and not your favorite song.
The means someone in broadcast range, not viewable range, can capture your information. One of the nice features of wireless is that it can penetrate walls where you may be able to see who is on the other side. Using a network packet analyzer, people could capture and analyze your information.
The good news is there are several security solutions you can take to protect your data while on the road with a PC. One solution involves finding a wireless provider that offers software with added security measures. The software is usually free, but you should always check the requirements before downloading. Specifically, some wireless connection software requires your wireless card or device support the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) protocol. The WPA protocol is considered more secure than WEP, but not all devices support it.
Although you can connect to most wireless providers without their branded software, you may be giving up security. This is especially true with carriers that offer WPA.
Wireless Provider Solutions
One example of a wireless carrier supplying connection software is T-Mobile. The company is best known as the wireless provider for Starbucks, Borders, Kinko's, Hyatt and many airline clubs. The company offers various plans ranging from "pay as you go" to subscription. You may also find offers for a 1 Day Free Pass at various locations, but you still need to create an account.
T-Mobile's software is called T-Mobile Connection Manager and provides Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) while on their network. The software is easy to use and allows you to connect to non-T-Mobile networks too. In the example below, T-Mobile will first try to connect you to their enhanced WPA network. Once you've connected to their WPA network or a VPN, checkmarks will display next to the proper indicator. If a WPA connection can't be made, you will be connected to an open network without the added security.
A competing service was recently started by ATT (previously SBC FreedomLink). Like T-Mobile, they offer WPA access when you use their ATT Wi-Fi Connection software. Although there are not as many ATT Wi-Fi hotspots, the connection costs are lower. This is especially true if you have a landline with AT&T.
Through many partnering agreements, Boingo has built an extensive wireless network. Boingo provides a free Wi-Fi software package, which can be used for wireless connections to other networks as well. The company doesn't offer as many payment plans as T-Mobile, but their monthly costs are significantly less. They also have an offer for one free month.
One advantage to the Boingo Wireless software is you can connect to other wireless networks and can use their VPN. For example, in our testing we experienced one T-Mobile hotspot that would not log on using WPA. Since we didn't want to be exposed, we closed the T-Mobile Connection manager, connected to the non-WPA network using Boingo, and then used their VPN option.
Boingo also provides wireless connection software for Pocket PCs, but the program does not include this VPN feature.
VPN Subscription Services
Another approach to wireless security is to subscribe to a service that provides VPN functionality through its own software. A VPN is a way in which you create a private network using a public network such as the Internet or a wireless carrier. VPNs only allow authorized users and they encrypt the data sent through the network. Many companies set up VPNs to allow employees access to resources while out of the office. You can also subscribe to services that provide VPN functionality.
One example is JiWire's Hotspot Helper service, (previously called SpotLock) which offers monthly and yearly options at reasonable prices. The advantage is that you're not tied to a specific wireless network for your security. However, the company doesn't provide wireless access so you're going to have to find a wireless connection. Fortunately, the JiWire software has the best hotspot directory we've seen. Entering in our search criteria, we were able to see many wireless hotspots including the providers and costs.
Once you make a connection to a service, JiWire subscribers can click the Secure tab to create a VPN connection. The connection will then show with a padlock above the connection icon and the security indicator.
Note: JiWire no longer offers this service.
Secure but not perfect
Although we think these tools provide much needed security, they're not perfect. We did run into connection problems that sometimes required us to reboot. Some programs can conflict with other connection software such as those supplied by your wireless card provider. Usually, these programs will alert you to these conflicts. We routinely disable our wireless card's connection utility before starting any of these programs.
You may also have an issue in sending email. Although you have Internet connectivity, some software packages and mail providers are particular about port and SMTP server settings. This isn't an issue if you're using a web-base email service like Yahoo!, hotmail or GMail.
Do Trial Run
Our suggestion before embarking on a road trip is to download the software you need and test it. We also keep these programs on our thumb drive. Since all these programs allow you to connect to other networks, try using a wireless network from home or work. This gives you an opportunity to fix any problems such as firewall settings beforehand. During that test connection, you should also grab any software and hotspot directory updates.
Lastly, make sure you know the details about your computer system before calling tech support. It's common for wireless connection problems to be caused by old drivers or unsupported wireless cards. Most likely, the support people will need to know items such as your operating system, wireless card manufacturer and model number, driver version and Hotspot location.
While finding the best wireless security solution may take a little bit or time and practice, your connection will be safer. We wouldn't plan to use a hotspot without one of these programs. And if you think the cost is too much, consider that the daily cost is much less than those fancy coffee drinks.
Last Updated (Friday, 28 September 2012 14:57)