Is hotel wireless Internet safe?

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According to a recent study of Internet service at 147 hotels conducted by Cornell University, if you’re using hotel wireless Internet access, you may be putting yourself at risk of spyware and malware infections, data snooping, and password theft. Knowing that most hotels do a lousy job of protecting your data, a more important question may be, how can I access the Internet safely from my hotel room?
While you could probably solve the malware problem by traveling with a Mac, since there are very few malware threats targeted at Mac users, it’s not realistic to throw out your existing computer, especially if it belongs to the company you work for. Simply making it a policy not to install anything while using a hotel’s Internet connection is likely another option to increase safety. Data and password snooping is a little more difficult because everyone is susceptible to having their connection sniffed if they are using an open wireless network connection or a compromised wired connection. An effective solution for protecting yourself from many issues related to hotel wireless Internet is to make the WiFi connection secure with a free VPN service. This is easy to configure.
My own solution is to travel with Sprint 4G service and a T-Mobile 4G service, because both keep me from needing hotel WiFi in the first place. The nature of cellular data networks makes them harder to snoop than a public WiFi hotspot. Whenever possible I use secure sign in options when connecting to further obfuscate my data. For some things I use the encrypted connection of Remote Desktop to connect to my home computer and transact business from my wired home connection using my laptop as the window to my desktop. I realize a $60/month data plan isn’t in everyone’s budget, but for my own habits it makes the most sense.
Remote Desktop is a viable solution to help securely access information, as long as you have a computer at home you can connect to. Of course this assumes you have two computers. Another viable option for two computers is the Hamachi service from LogMeIn. Hamachi is definitely more of a no-configuration solution than Remote Desktop, with the $4.95/month price being a reasonable solution for most people who travel. You can always turn it off when you’re not traveling and incur no additional expense.
If your only option is to use public wireless at a hotel, here are three key things you can do to protect yourself:
1) Don’t sign in to any accounts with sensitive personal data like bank and credit card information. If you need to get in contact with your bank or check balance information, use their phone support instead.
2) If you need to check your email on the road, change your password when you get back. This won’t protect anyone from reading your email at the hotel, but email is a lousy solution for transmitting secure information anyway.
3) Don’t make purchases from the public WiFi with your credit card. Encrypted links are no guarantee that your data is protected on a public connection.
What advice do you have for protecting your data while traveling?

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3 comments

  1. I have used Juno (United Online) since 2001. It is encrypted until I view it on my HDD. It basically operates on POP3. I would like to think it’s sufficient, but perhaps you have more convincing “other ideas”. I have continued to use it for its POP3, but also because – for $9.95/year (US) – it allows me to keep one address so I don’t lose contacts.
    It also allows me a small, but significant ability to include graphics in my messages – nothing elaborate, but sufficiently improved over other services like Yahoo, etc..
    If I’m wrong, I’d certainly like to know.

  2. I just returned from a weekend trip to Los Angeles, and I used my favorite solution for hotel wifi: I took along my wireless router (actually, my old 802.11g router that I keep as a backup.) My home wifi network settings are already configured into the router. Just plug it into the available ethernet port and PRESTO! Wifi as secure as when you are at home. When I’m out of the room or not online, I power off the router, so that no snoopers will see the signal.

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