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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 4/14/06 Advice needed on using Wi-Fi access in public

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) April 13, 2006 11:51 AM PDT

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4/14/06 Advice needed on using Wi-Fi access in public

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 4/13/06 11:51 AM


I will be traveling to a conference in a month, and the hotel that I am staying at has wireless Internet access. My new computer has the capability to access it, but I haven't had the chance to try it out. What should I expect and what do I need to do to be online while there? Additionally are there any do's or don'ts that I should be aware of? I am running a Dell Inspiron 9300 with Windows XP. Thank you!

Submitted by: Dawn C. of Arizona



Wireless Internet access, or Wi-Fi, is something that 10 to 15 years ago, we probably wouldn't have thought would be a reality, and we probably would not have imagined the ways we'd use it. Now those of us who have gone Wi-Fi can't imagine living with out it. Many restaurants, coffee shops, truck stops, and hotels, and even some entire cities, have gone Wi-Fi in efforts to attract customers. And it works; I'm more likely to stay at a hotel that has free Internet access if I have a choice. However, some hotels charge for access, so your computer recognizes a connection but won't process it until you pay up.

Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity, but it is simply a network without wires. Its speed is typically somewhere between dial up and broadband, and it has two standards, 802.11.b, which transmits at rates up to 11 mb/second and 802.11.g, which transmits at 54 mb/s; Wireless b and g for short. Those rates are peak rates, so things like distance from the signal, walls and physical barriers, and the number of users at a given time, can slow it down a bit more. The good news is that wireless b and g are compatible, so if your laptop is wireless g and the hotel only has wireless b, you'll still get a signal; it will just be at the wireless b speed.

Almost all new laptops, like your Dell, come equipped with Wi-Fi, meaning that they have all the hardware and software you need to wirelessly connect to the internet straight out of the box. And most older laptops still in use have bays that you can slide networking cards into to go wi-fi. If your computer is Wi-Fi enabled, all you have to do is make sure the Wi-Fi is turned on (usually there is a button on the computer somewhere for this), and if your computer doesn't automatically detect and connect to the network, just open the wireless network setup from your quicklaunch buttons and go through its setup: search for existing wireless networks and then connect to one.

Safety can be a concern. The slower the connection, the less encryption there is. An experience hacker can break the encryption on a wireless b connection in a matter of minutes. Wireless g is more secure, but still not perfect. The upside is that in order to be hacked, a hacker has to be near you, and has to target you specifically, both of which are unlikely. Also, most banking and shopping websites use an additional layer of encoding called Secure Socket Layer, or SSL for short, which encodes the information so that only the user and the website can see it. Websites that use SSL start with an 'https' instead of 'http,' which sends your computer a specific encryption key so your data cannot be hacked. The dashboard on your web browser will also display a lock symbol to indicate that you are on a secure website, and you can even have popup windows alert you when you enter or leave a secure site. If you plan on using your computer a lot remotely, do not check the "do not show this warning again" box, as this will continue to give you alerts as to when your web browser is on secure pages.

Your company might also use a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, which uses remote internet connections to securely connect you to your company's network. You can also install firewalls on your computer to keep people from hacking into your machine. But the most secure thing to do is to turn your internet connection off when not in use. Most laptops have some sort of Wi-Fi button that will toggle your connection on or off. Not only will this protect your computer, it also saves battery power.

One of the trickiest security threats is what's called an "evil twin." Evil twins are when a hacker sets up a computer to act like a wireless access point, and gets you to enter in personal data (an evil twin might impersonate a paypal or citibank website and ask for your login info). You can avoid these security issues by 1, using the https web pages, 2, payng attention to your popup windows that tell you when you're sending unencrypted information, 3, using a VPN if your employer has one for you, 4, making sure that a link has not redirected you to an unrelated address that looks the same as your bank's page, and 5, simply avoid doing your banking, bill paying, or ebay purchases unless you are at home and know the connection is secure.

Buying extra software or demanding your employer set you up with a VPN may seem like a bit much, and maybe it is, but only you know how safe you need to make your computer. The good news is that if this is a business expense, you might be able to get your employer to refund you things like connection fees (if the hotel doesn't have free Wi-Fi) and security software. You could at least deduct them from your taxes. Enjoy the new world of Wi-Fi, but play it safe!

Submitted by: Jeremy S.

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