For people who work as travel writers or simply those who find themselves using free WI-FI spots in cafés, airports and hostels/hotels whilst on the road it is essential that you secure your connection and computer the very best you can to avoid being a victim of cyber-crime and intrusions from hackers. You’ll soon see how vulnerable you could be to hackers and con-artists by the end of this article (plus the steps you need to take in order to protect yourself online).
Now, a few days ago I landed in Egypt and needed to pull out my laptop, jump onto the free WI-FI connection in Egypt Airport and book a hostel (which would offer a free lift from the airport, a classic money saving tip, though better to book in advance not last minute like me!). I realised seconds before logging into my email and hostelbookers that I wasn’t 100% secure from prying eyes whilst using the WI-FI at the airport… in fact, I had no idea that the unsecured WI-FI network I was connecting onto conveniently named ‘Free Airport WIFI’ along with around 10 others of various names was genuine and not in fact set up by some randomer using an internet dongle and their own computer as a router in order to monitor their connections and internet activity! – This can be done easily and I have done it multiple times to allow other people to use the WI-FI signal from the internet dongle on my computer, it’s legal if used correctly, highly illegal is not…
If I were to connect to this network and book a hostel online using my credit card there would be a potential for hackers within the airport (where many are now operating to target unsuspecting travellers like you and I) to see all my credit card details, where I was going, how long I was staying for any any other information they wanted to know.
Note that even if the website you were booking on had an SSL certificate (which most of them have now which accept payments online) that layer of security is server-side and is NO benefit to you when you are are using unsecured WI-FI in a public place as the potential hacker can intercept communications between your computer and the WI-FI router (or be the WI-FI router themselves!).
Generally speaking, real public WI-FI will be unsecured so that anyone can use it and will not require a password to use it. This often means that hackers or even slightly computer savvy people can intercept your communications with the use of readily available tools on the internet (I could have done so at the Airport to test the security of the network but didn’t fancy potentially getting caught and going to an Egyptian Prison!)
WPA (encrypted) WI-FI can often be found in cafe’s and hotels but this still doesn’t mean you are protected from prying eyes, this simply means that you need a password to access the WI-FI connection to use the internet NOT that your communications are encrypted or secure – If a hacker was logged into the same network as you (ie they bought a coffee and asked for the password to the network), then you would be as vulnerable as you were on an unsecured network.
I consider myself an advanced computer user and although I have quite a bit of protection on my computer (a firewall, anti-virus, and a number of security plugins which I use when browsing the internet) I was still open to attack as the actual transmission of my data over the WI-FI connection was not encrypted and potentially available for others to see.
As my entire life is on my laptop and I need it for work, I decided to take a few minutes out to fully secure myself before logging onto a public, unsecured WI-FI connection so I could safely make a payment for a hostel online with my credit card.
I have used Comodo Firewall as my firewall software for many years on all computers I have owned. It is the worlds number 1 free Firewall software and in my eyes provides better security with a more manageable interface that nearly all paid for software you can buy. Needless to say Comodo are very good and leaders in internet security and if you haven’t already got a firewall or you’re current one is taking up too many resources on your computer I’d recommend downloading this one.
Whilst the firewall protects any direct inbound access to my computer which I do not approve and the AV protects against viruses from any received files/connections I do approve, my computers transmission of data bound for the internet was still being left open for attack (as will most users of Public WI-FI) which could be picked up by hackers.
So I set out to find something that encrypts the information on my computer, then sends the encrypted data over the WI-FI connection to a secured server on the internet which will then pass on my communications securely to the websites I will want to access, in my case it was the site for HostelBookers. This means that any potential hacker listening in on my communications would not be able to decode the 128-bit encrypted data (industry standard used by banks and governments) and thus have no ability to see what I was doing, nor view any of my personal data ie. my credit card details and place of stay.
Luckily for me (and you!) there is a service provided by Comodo that is designed specifically for this purpose, it’s called TrustConnect Wi-Fi Security there are probably others out there but as I’ve been using Comodo for 15+ years without a glitch and they are one of the leaders in internet security, I didn’t look much further. I will do a more in-depth review of available options in the next week or so.
You have to pay for the TrustConnect service but the prices I think are very reasonable and guarantee peace of mind, so I’d highly recommend it to everyone. All subscription plans have the option to be set to bill recurring and you are tied into no contract
Monthly Plan, Unlimited Bandwidth/Traffic : $8.99/month – Most Popular, I use this.
1 Year Plan, Unlimited Bandwidth/Traffic: $99.95
1 Year Plan, 10GB Bandwidth/Traffic: $12.95
1 Year Plan, 50GB Bandwidth/Traffic: $29.95
1 Year Plan, 100GB Bandwidth/Traffic: $49.95
Daily Plan, Unlimited Bandwidth/Traffic: $3.99
Prices were taken on 25th March 2013, you can check their latest prices by visiting https://www.comodo.com/home/internet-security/wifi-security.php as they may have decreased at the time of reading.
Once you have downloaded and installed the small program (under 1MB), you simply connect to the service using an icon in the taskbar (bottom right of screen). This means that if you are on a limited bandwidth allowance you can de-activate the service with one click when you are uploading none-private photographs, streaming videos online or otherwise comfortable you are on a secured network and don’t require this additional layer of security. Note that TrustConnect encrypts informations two-ways (upload and download) so if you leave it on, download some videos and you are on a limited bandwidth allowance you could find this allowance being eaten up! Personally I’d advise going for the monthly recurring and unlimited bandwidth plan.
If you wanted to monitor how much bandwidth you are currently consuming on the internet, you could you this free nifty tool called Networx which will provide you with a graphical (and numeric) representation of how much bandwidth you are using. I use this often when I have to use my USB Internet Dongle to monitor how much of my traffic allowance I am using. You can set daily limit notifications so you know roughly how much data you are transferring. It’s completely free, updated regularly (last update 17 Dec 2012 on time of writing) and is only 3.0MB. Screenshots of it in use can be found at www.softperfect.com/products/networx/ I encourage anyone who uses it and finds it useful to donate a little to the developer (a buck or two if you’re broke) as this will ensure the continued development of this brilliant program!
So getting back to the matter in hand. With TrustConnect installed and working (I ran a few tests) I was happy that I’m fully secured and can happily connect to any publicly available WI-FI spot anywhere in the world without the risk of having any of my details stolen which had previously happened when I was in an internet café in Malta come to think of it!
One of the other benefits of using TrustConnect is that it creates a VPN (Virtual Private Network) which effectively hides you completely from anyone looking for your computer (IE, hackers trying to obtain information about your computer and it’s connection).
The supported operating systems and system requirements for TrustConnect are given below and have been taken direct from their website.
- Windows 7 – 32 bit and 64 bit
- Mac OS X
- Linux (containing kernel 2.4 or later)
- FreeBSD, OpenBSD
- 22 MB RAM
- 7 MB Disk Space
I would without question seriously consider using TrustConnect to secure your Wi-Fi networks, I’m currently writing this from a hostel wi-fi connection and if it wasn’t for TC I would have no idea if there was someone next door watching everything I am doing!
For others who are interested I also use a number of other security programs and browser plugins which further enhance security. Here’s the list of my currently installed security software I use now which have helped me become more at ease of using the internet on the road:
Anti-virus software is essential on every computer and often installed by default on many new operating systems. The problem is that most AV (Anti-Virus) software comes will too many bells and whistles that people simply don’t need but which AV companies use in order to market their products to the less knowledgeable people out there; this is also a good way for them to distinguish themselves from their competition and a way for them to provide a USP that ultimately results in more sales.
These added features often slow your computer down and take a long time to configure and often complicate the system.
If, like me, you want a free, lightweight, reliable and secure Anti-Virus product I would go for AVG Anti-Virus Free, I have been using this for more years that I can count and I have never had a problem. The software is self-updating, it’s free and it doesn’t slow your computer down. It’s currently in use by over 110 million people worldwide (464 million downloads on Cnet.com) and the company has been around for 22 years.
If you wanted to try a number of different AV software before settling on one, I can also recommend Avast Anti-virus which I have also used successfully the last few years.
Chrome Security Plugins/Extensions
To further enhance my security online, I have a number of extensions used on my browser Google Chrome (used because it loads faster on my computer than Firefox or IE), also it has quite a good development community whom actively build some pretty amazing plugins or extensions for the browser. Some extensions can save you a heap of time but also allow you to browse the internet with more security and privacy which I think especially important when travelling abroad or using public WI-FI.
Some Google Chrome Plugins which I use to improve Web-Browsing Privacy and Security can be found below:
Used by almost 900,000 of Chrome users (average rating of 4.76/5 – Very good!), Last Pass is one of my most used plugins. In essence, it saves all login details you have including your password and then when you load up chrome you simply log into the service using 1 master password (which you should make memorable but very secure), then any time you visit a site you have already saved for remembering, it will auto fill your details or give you the ability to choose which account you wish to log into should you have more than one account with the same website. It also gives you the opportunity to Auto-Login to sites if you have only one account with that site and would like to log in straight away. I use this function for my main Google account and over the years has saved me much time.
One of the added benefits of this plugin is that you can set many different parameters to fully customise how secure you would like the service to be. You can organise saved sites into Groups and Favourites as well as setting which countries you will allow to log into this service – A great feature if you travel around a lot.
By using an extension or service similar to this one ensures you can select strong, individual passwords for all of your online accounts and not have to worry about taking ages to fill them in each time and remembering complex passwords. Many people still use one passwords for all of their accounts online, this is VERY BAD PRACTISE!! If someone was to get hold of one of your account passwords they have the key to all of your accounts!
Initially, I was a little apprehensive about keeping all of my passwords on a 3rd party site but after reading reviews from other users and reading about the LastPass technology I was confident my passwords were safe. I have been using this service for around 2 years now with no problems and have been very happy, I wouldn’t recommend it otherwise. Coupled with TrustConnect you can be sure that your passwords are 100% secure.
You can download the LastPass Chrome Extension from the Chrome Webstore here:
Alternatively visit www.lastpass.com to learn more about their service and see how to install it for other browsers (it supports most of the main ones), also a video for a little more information.
Click & Clean
Click & Clean provides an easy way to ensure that all private data is removed when you shut down your browser. This is another widely used plugin within the Chrome community and has been downloaded 337,000+ times and achieved a 4.7/5 star rating from 1400 reviews (very good!).
I use it for an extra bit of privacy, but also to ensure that hard disk space isn’t being taken up by temporary internet files and other garbage I don’t want as this can accumulate to quite a bit over time.
Even though using this extension means you have to re-login each time you want to access an online account, when coupled with LastPass it takes only seconds and you benefit from additional security should your laptop ever get stolen.
This plugin in lightweight and useful for web-developers who sometimes need a quick way to flush cookies or temp files on their site to check for changes. For non-developers it’s a install once, configure and forget plugin and highly recommended.
It’s been developed by the team at www.hotcleaner.com (to give them a bit of link love!) and is actively developed. If you have a problem or feature suggestion, you can leave a comment in the Chrome community and/or email them – they listen to their customers…
You can download Click & Clean from the Chrome Web Store here:
Disconnect is a slightly less well-known plugin (it hasn’t been around that long) that does an excellent job of protecting your privacy from social network scripts and widgets that you’ll find running on more and more websites these days (including ours!).
It effectively stops your browsing history and cookies being carried across different websites by search engines and third parties, thus increasing your web-privacy.
It will block certain cookies on your computer from being accessible by search engines which will make your search engine results slightly less ‘personalised’ but I find this to be perfect as I often search for very specific information within the same topic and don’t want one result to influence another.
This extension will disable Facebook boxes, +1 boxes/widges along with others from displaying on pages so if you are actively using these features this may not be a plugin for you.
You can however add sites to a ‘Whitelist’ with this extension and also temporarily disable it should you wish to play facebook games for example… all from a click of a button!
A recent feature of the Disconnect extension is the ability to improve your WI-FI security whilst using social media sites, an interesting video of it in action can be found out by visiting the developers website at disconnect.me/security
It’s been downloaded over 243,000 times to date and has been given a rating of 4.59 from the Chrome Extension community who have submitted 1130 ratings against it. Needless to say, it is a very good extension and in my eyes should be downloaded by anyone who has a concern for internet privacy.
The Disconnect.me Chrome Extension can be downloaded from the Chrome Webstore here:
Keep My Opt-Outs
A Chrome extension developed by Google, Keep My Opt-Outs allows users to permanently opt out of personalised ads which they are shown when searching the internet.
For those who don’t know… Google (and other search engines), use your search history and previously visited sites to customise the ads you are shown when browsing the internet. Ie, should you have visited a site about car repairs, you’ll likely see many adverts for Automotive sites and insurance companies, even if you have moved onto a site about bread baking…
This extension will disable the customised ads, so if you visit a car repair site (where you’ll likely see ads for automotive sites and insurance companies), when you visit your bread-baking site, you’ll see only adverts related to bread-baking…
It’s a download and install extension which you active and forget. I have used this for years and it works just as it should (434,000+ people also use this extension and the community from the Chrome Web Store have given the extension a 4.44/5 rating – very good!).
I’d rather see related adverts to the page I’m viewing than related to my previous searches. Many people use AdBlocking software which I don’t agree with as it takes revenue away from Websmasters (including myself) who rely on this income to earn a living. If I found an article interesting on a site I was visiting I would often click through a sponsored link to help give a little ‘donation’ to the web-master… a small token of appreciation if you will; If more people did this as opposed to installing AdBlocking software the internet would be a different place.
You can download Keep My Opt-Outs from the Google Webstore here:
The final plugin I’d semi-recommend is HTTPS Everywhere, this plugin will try to connect to secure pages of websites you visit if available. IE, should you visit http://www.facebook.com you’ll be redirected to https://www.facebook.com which will ensure that everything you do on Facebook will be handled by a secure and encrypted connection safe from hackers.
The reason I say ‘semi-recommend’ is because the extension isn’t perfect and is still lacking some vital features ie, whitelisting certain websites so they are not redirected to https versions of the site, as sometimes this can cause a re-direct loop and the only way to disable this is to deactivate the extension completely which can be a pain sometimes.
After scanning the reviews and comments left by other users this problem and these lack of essential features seems to affect some people more than others so maybe give it a try and if it doesn’t work you can easily uninstall it with no ill effects.
Currently 173,000 people have installed it on Chrome and it has a rating of 4.59/5.0 so can only assume that most people will have no problem using it. I personally don’t use it, but may decide to in the near future.
Oh wait, one more for you… This little gem of an extension (only 4,800 downloads) removes the tracking/referral link from Google search results so the links you click on are not tracked by Google after the initial search. I’m not sure of the real privacy purpose of this plugin but on slow internet connections in hostels I’ve found that sometimes the page hangs on the Google redirect, and after installing this little gem, that additional step is removed and I no longer suffer from that annoyance.
The plugin in called Undirect and is available from the Google Web Store here:
As a final closing note, if you wanted to remove history/last file opens etc from your recently used programs you could install a program called CCleaner from Piriform, it does a great job of clearing up your system and is highly configurable whilst remaining easy for beginners. Oh and it’s completely free!!
I hope this information will help some of you travel with a greater peace of mind that your information is safe and secure no matter where you decide to use internet!