So, you want to check your email and your bank accounts while you’re traveling but is it safe to do that? It is if you plan ahead and bring along the right tools.
Your Own Laptop – Best Solution
Having your own laptop with a personal VPN and your firewall turned on is by far the safest way to go. This is true for both Windows and Mac. I’m more familiar with Windows, both XP and Vista have a personal firewall that you should always have turned on when you are using it on an unsecured network to prevent others from coming in a using your laptop as a launching pad for such unsavory things as pornography, spamming or spreading viruses.
Personal VPN software
The personal VPN software I recommend is from Witopia. It currently runs 39.99/year which is very cheap for what it does. It’s very simple to use and quite dependable. You install it on your laptop and every time you are on an unsecured wireless connection, you double click on it and it creates the VPN tunnel within about 30 seconds. Actually, you can use it any time you turn on your laptop, even at home, and your IP will continually be different. If you don’t understand what an IP is, don’t worry! I initially purchased Witopia when I started spending more time working in coffee shops around Seattle. I now need not worry about someone in the area “sniffing” my network connections in plain text.
Many more reasons to install a personal VPN are explained here at the Witopia site. Witopia – Reasons to Install a Personal VPN
Here’s the one you’re most interested in while traveling, so I’m quoting it here:
“You use Wi-Fi Hotspots.
Although most don’t realize it, Wi-Fi Hotspots, whether paid or free, are horrifically insecure. You are literally broadcasting all of your data “in the clear” with typically no security whatsoever. This can include your e-mail, IM messages, web searches, and any other data sent or received over the wireless network.
It is shockingly easy for anyone to “sniff” and capture your data without your knowledge. Due to the ease of the crime, and the fact Wi-Fi Hotspots are typically frequented by folks with a little change in their pocket, a Wi-Fi Hotspot is a tantalizing place for bad guys to lurk.
One common tactic is something called the “evil twin” attack where the evildoer sets up a laptop as a seemingly legitimate Wi-Fi Hotspot. You connect to the Internet through “FREE Airport Wi-Fi” — or anything the bad guy wishes to name it — and although all seems fine you are actually sending all of your data through a hacker’s laptop.
Honestly, we’re not sure how often this happens, and it may even be pretty rare. Nevertheless, with data crimes, it usually only takes once to cause some pretty serious havoc in your life.
With WiTopia VPN service you could even connect through the hacker’s laptop and all they would be able to capture is a lot of encrypted gibberish they will never be able to crack.”
When you decide to use a public computer, even a computer at your hotel that you assume is safe, you’re taking a huge, repeat, HUGE risk. Even using an https address will not protect you from spyware and key logging programs or hardware. Always be very aware that when you choose to use a public computer, be it at the hotel or at an internet café, you are taking a huge risk of getting your passwords stolen if you type them in manually.
Bottom line, when you use a public computer, you should not log onto your bank accounts unless you are using some kind of password autofill program. Read more password autofill options below.
Password Autofill Software
I recommend password manager I use at home is RoboForm. For use while traveling, I’ve purchased Roboform2Go, which is a $20 add-on to the Roboform software. This will will provide you with everything you need to access your passwords securely while traveling using a USB drive. Be sure to purchase a U3 Smart USB drive, they have security built in. Bottom line, Roboform costs a relatively small amount for what it offers and I’ve gotten to where I can’t live without it now. It also does form filling for you.
If you’re looking for something free but not quite as robust as Roboform, check out Lastpass. It’s very simple software to use. All of your passwords are stored at LastPass (they use very secure 256 AES encryption). When you’re using an untrusted computer, you’ll log onto Lastpass using a one time password that you generated before you left (be sure to do this or you’ll be out of luck). Get this service before you leave, be sure to store all of your passwords that you’ll use on the road on it and then create about 50 one time passwords (or however many you think you’ll need to gain access to your password vault while on the road).
Other Opinions About Using Hotel or Other Non-Secured Computers
Quoted from CNET PCMag Article
“But really, you should do your best to avoid using nonsecure computers. Even if you keep a key¬logger from snagging your password, it might still take screenshots of key financial info. Your best bet is to implement a high degree of security on your laptop and resign yourself to lugging the darn thing along.”
What To Do Every Time You Finish Using a Public Computer
Clear the browser cache and cookies! Normally this is done by going to Tools – Internet Options.Don’t, I repeat, DO NOT leave any personal information on the computer.
This isn’t about being paranoid, it’s about being smart. We’re beyond the days of leaving home and really being gone, but you can check your email and your bank accounts safely if you follow the recommendations shared in this article.
About the Author
Cheryl is both a computer systems professional and as someone who travels frequently for both business and pleasure both here in the US and internationally.