Concerned About Firesheep? Here are Some Secure Wi-Fi Alternatives

Firesheep this week put the dangers of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr over open Wi-Fi networks in the spotlight. Although the dangers of open Wi-Fi networks aren't anything new, Firesheep lets anyone who can using a notebook computer side-jacking your social media session. ITWorld has already provided a list of steps you can take to protect yourself from Firesheep, but if you're extremely concerned you may want to consider Wi-Fi alternatives when out and about rather than using the network in your local coffee shop.

Those alternatives are actually ones many road warriors are already familiar with: tethering a computer to a smartphone, using a 3G modem with your notebook, or purchasing a MiFi card. All three options can be costly, but they offer a much higher level of security as well as 3G/4G access wherever you are.

Tethering - Depending on your mobile carrier and phone, tethering may be a simple option. Most smartphones can be tethered to a notebook using a USB cable or Bluetooth. Android phones running Froyo can go even further than other platforms in that they allow you to turn your phone in a secure Wi-Fi hotspot for use with multiple devices as opposed to just tethering a single device. Tethering has a cost benefit over other options because there is no additional hardware needed (though some carriers will charge extra to allow tethering - AT&T's policy on iPhone tethering comes immediately to mind). Of course, you'll still be using your plans data allotment, which add up in and of it itself. Also, while tethering is supported by both Windows and Mac OS X, it isn't supported by some other devices (like the iPad).

3G/4G Modem - The term modem is antiquated (and these devices don't function as modems did back in the day), but carriers offering 3G and 4G service make USB devices available that can be used with notebooks and netbooks to connect to the Internet through their data network. Of course, there's the cost of the device (sometimes free with a contract) and the data plan to support it. This is usually a separate monthly contract from your existing phone plan, though this can be good because you're not sharing a limited data amount between both devices and you can shop around with other carriers for better coverage and performance (such as Sprint's 4G service in select areas) as well as for the best deal.

Obviously this option is generally limited to a laptop, though Windows and Mac OS X allow you to share that connection by setting up a small secure Wi-Fi network (similar to what Android phones offer). Also a number of netbooks are available subsidized by carriers that include a built-in modem.

MiFi - MiFi cards have started replacing 3G/4G modems. The cards (roughly the size of four credit cards stacked together) connect to a carrier's 3G/4G network and produce a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot that supports up to five devices. The network is secure (usually using a network name and password on the card) and there is no real setup involved - just power the card on and connect. Battery life and performance will vary (and both will decrease as more devices connect), but most MiFi cards offer about three hours of life and can be charged from a computer's USB port. There's also no device restrictions - notebooks, iPads, even smartphones can all access the secure network as they can any other Wi-Fi network.

MiFi cards may be the most expensive (as well as flexible) options, though the cards themselves are often subsidized by carriers. Like a modem, you can shop around for the best combination of coverage, performance, and cost.

If you're looking for a secure solution without a contract, check out Virgin Mobile's Broadband To Go. A pre-paid division of Sprint, Virgin offers a 3G USB modem and a MiFi card (both unsubsidized at $79.99 and $149.99 respectively) and service for $10 for up to 100MB of data and $40 for a month of unlimited service ( and can be picked up a Best Buy, RadioShack, and Wal-Mart).

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfass.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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