Mobile Computing: Are Hot Spots Safe?

Feature: Are Hot Spots Safe?

You and your notebook are at a corner café, wirelessly surfing the Internet. You buy a book from Amazon.com using your credit card and check your savings account balance at your bank's Web site. It's all very cool, in a new-millennium sort of way.

But is it secure?

Wireless networks broadcast data over radio waves, and anything transmitted over the airwaves can be intercepted. That's why wireless networks are inherently less secure than wired networks.

By definition, public wireless networks are designed to be accessed by anyone within the Wi-Fi hot spot's broadcast range, usually up to 150 feet from an antenna. Because these wireless networks are open to all (either for free or for a fee), it's possible that sophisticated hackers could grab your data out of the air, decode it, and use it, according to C. Brian Grimm, marketing director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit association.

This doesn't mean, however, that you have essentially recited your credit card and bank account numbers aloud for everyone in the café to jot down. While no security system is infallible, there are strong security precautions in place to protect wireless network users.

Look for the Lock

When you bank or shop online, your transactions are usually handled on secure servers that use Secure Sockets Layer, an encryption protocol that creates a secure Internet connection between the client (you) and the e-commerce site's server.

Web retailers that support SSL--and the vast majority do--direct your transactions to areas of their site that have URLs beginning with https instead of the standard http. This indicates that the area of the site you're in is secured by the SSL protocol. Also, you'll notice a lock icon displayed in the lower right corner of the Web browser window, which indicates the area of the Web site you're in is secure.

For example, let's say you're going to shop for a book at Amazon.com. You won't notice the https or the lock icon in your Web browser while you're browsing for books, because that activity doesn't need to be secure.

But once you begin the checkout process, in which you're required to enter your credit card information, you're directed to a secure Amazon.com server. At this point, you'll notice that the Amazon.com URL in the address line of your browser now starts with https instead of http, and there is a lock icon visible in the bottom right corner of your browser window.

Virtual Private Networks

Other security precautions are also available to protect wireless network users.

Many companies, particularly large enterprises, offer their employees Virtual Private Network connections to the company's network and the Internet. VPNs use encryption and other security methods to give wireless network users the same kind of privacy that wired networks typically have.

Some wireless network service providers also offer VPN security. For example, EarthLink Wireless High Speed, which the Internet service provider EarthLink offers in conjunction with Wi-Fi hot spot provider Boingo, includes built-in VPN security, according to EarthLink. The service is offered at some 2500 locations such as airports, hotels, and coffee shops at rates beginning at $5 per month.

Is Your Notebook Secure?

Wireless networking has its own security protocols. The Wireless Equivalent Privacy protocol has been around for years, but has fallen out of favor because its security is far from airtight.

A newer wireless network security protocol, Wi-Fi Protected Access, started showing up in new products in early 2003. WPA provides encryption and other privacy protections that are far stronger than previous Wi-Fi protocols, says Grimm.

Some notebooks have built-in wireless networking capabilities. So how can you tell if your notebook's wireless networking chip supports WPA? The Wi-Fi Alliance site maintains a list of WPA-certified products, including internal wireless networking cards found in notebooks and desktops. Go to the site's Certified Product Listing to browse by vendor and product type.

If your chip doesn't appear on that list, one option is to buy a new, external WPA-compatible wireless network adapter (about $50 or more). To find an adapter, go to the Filter by Company drop-down menu on the Certified Product Listing page, select (Show All); in the Filter Products By menu, choose External Card; under Capabilities, click to check Wi-Fi Protected Access; and then click the Submit button. The products listed include links to vendor Web sites.

Keep in mind that Microsoft Windows XP doesn't support WPA, so you'll need to go to the company's support site to download an update. The Microsoft site includes lots of helpful information about WPA as well.

But you may not need to buy an adapter, even if your notebook's internal wireless networking card doesn't support WPA. You may be able to upgrade the card's firmware to add WPA support; check the online support section of your notebook vendor's Web site or the manufacturer of your notebook's wireless network card for updated drivers that support WPA.

External wireless network adapters, such as PC Cards and USB devices, may also have updated drivers that add WPA support. Check the adapter manufacturer's online support for the latest drivers.

Extra Protection

Though Windows XP has a built-in firewall that helps prevent unauthorized access to your computer files, you might consider more robust programs such as ZoneAlarm Plus 4 ($40) or ZoneAlarm Pro 4 ($50). Both programs include a feature called Mobile PC Protection, which automatically detects and protects you on the wired or wireless network that you're connecting to. Read Sean Captain's review of ZoneAlarm Pro 4 for details. Go to the Zone Labs site to download ZoneAlarm Plus or Pro.

More About Wi-Fi

For more information about wireless networking, see my earlier articles on the subject: "All About Wi-Fi," "Ultimate Guide to the Wireless Web" and "Guide to Wi-Fi Hot Spots." And don't forget PC World's Hot Spot Finder.

Your Feedback

Have you ever experienced a security problem while using a wireless network connection? Do you have any other advice for keeping your computer files as secure as possible while working on a wireless network? Tell me about it.

Notebooks & Accessories

Reader Response: Targus Cooler Is Cool

In response to my recent story about overheating notebooks, Mark Hoggatt of Yuma, Arizona recommends the Targus Tornado Notebook Chill Mat ($30), a cooling mat for notebooks.

The Chill Mat features two built-in fans, is powered by a USB port, and is designed to dissipate the heat generated by the notebook during use. Hoggatt says the Targus cooler keeps his Dell Inspiron 5100 "always at or just above room temperature."

A former programmer and equipment designer for Motorola, Hoggatt says that for every 18 degrees Fahrenheit elevation in temperature, the life of a computer's semiconductor is reduced by a factor of 10.

"Heat is the laptop's number one enemy," he stresses, and the Targus cooler is helping to prolong his notebook's life. (Hoggatt says he has no affiliation with Targus.)

Reader Response: Idle Your CPU

Notebook overheating is apparently a hot topic, given all the messages I've received on the subject. James MacLean of Lauderhill, Florida e-mailed me to recommend CPUIdle. The software utility reduces power consumption and CPU temperature by shutting down the CPU when it's not in use and by performing other power management tasks typically not handled by the computer's operating system, according to the German developer's Web site (which is in English).

"I've been using CPUIdle for years on my notebook and it really does reduce the [notebook's] temperature significantly," writes MacLean, who says he has no affiliation with the company and is simply a "satisfied customer."

I've not used CPUIdle, and judging from its Web site, it looks a bit techie. But you can try the software free for 30 days, after which you must pay $30 (U.S.) to continue using it.

Cool Accessory: The Oyster

While I'm on the subject of overheating notebooks, Sherpaq Mobile Products offers what looks like a cool solution to the problem: the Oyster, a sleek docking station that positions the notebook vertically. According to the company, the Oyster has an open-air design that allows heat to escape from the notebook.

In addition, the Oyster positions the notebook's display at eye level and allows you to connect an external keyboard and pointing device for a more physically comfortable setup, according to Eric Thompson, the company's principal. I've never tried the Oyster, but it looks promising. It's available for $149 from Amazon.com, which offers a 30-day return policy.

Gadgets & Services

News: Office on Wheels

Most likely, many of you have already turned your car into a makeshift office. But in the near future, your car could actually be your office.

At the recent Cebit trade show in Germany, Intel and BMW showed a prototype BMW 7 Series car, which includes a Tablet PC in the armrest of the back seat, a Bluetooth-enabled printer and fax machine, and a wireless network access point. But don't rev your engines just yet.

"It's just a prototype," says Christian Morales, general manager of Intel's Europe, Middle East, and Africa operations. "But the automotive industry is working on these types of advances."

An Intel representative didn't specify when such a vehicle would be for sale. Read more about it.

News: Storage for Multimedia Phones

SanDisk's new Reduced Size-MultiMediaCard is a removable flash memory card about half the size of a standard Secure Digital card. The new RS-MMC format can fit into any MMC or SD media slot and is designed especially for multimedia-capable cell phones. The card will come in 32MB, 64MB, and 128MB capacities, according to SanDisk.

"Every mobile phone manufacturer is adding a ... flash card slot to provide storage for multimedia files," says Bob Goligoski, a company spokesperson.

News: Simplified Handheld Surfing

Surfing the Web on a mobile phone or PDA is kind of like traveling across town on a Segway, the self-balancing two-wheeled human transporter: It's cool, but not exactly efficient. A new service, Handmark Express, is designed to make your handheld Web outings speedier. The subscription service ($7 per month) delivers Web content such as news, weather, movie listings, stocks, sports, and maps that is specially formatted for Internet-connected Palm OS- and Windows Mobile-based devices. PC World's Yardena Arar was impressed by the speed and simplicity of a beta version she tested.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it.

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