11 December, 2006

Safe Computing While Traveling

In speaking with an old friend today, I was reminded of how unsafe it can be to use an unprotected wireless connection, or even worse, an Internet cafe' PC. So when I got home, I researched some of the services and solutions that I have read and heard about.

First of all, you should always take caution when using an open network. This includes both wireless and wired (such as a hotel). The best way to do this is by setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) before doing anything else. If you are a business person, you may already have that capability through your company. If so, check with your IT department to find out what happens when you connect to non-work addresses. Typically it will skip the VPN and go directly to the site, saving company bandwidth, but putting you at risk. Note that there may be a way to change this setting.

Assuming you cannot get protected through your company network (or you do not want to), there are a couple other options. One option is to set up a VPN to your home PC. Using a service such as Himachi to set up a VPN, and then a version of VNC (RealVNC and TightVNC are two of several), you can connect to your home PC and safely surf. The other option is to use a 3rd party service.

I found two 3rd party VPN services, HotSpotVPN and WiTopia. HotSpotVPN is about $9 a month while WiTopia is $40 per year. There are free solutions too, but you might want to think twice before using a free service to protect your data. WiTopia also offers solutions to protect your wireless network at home -- there claim is that WAP is just not enough (you do use WAP, right?).

Perhaps you were considering an Internet cafe'. It just so happens that CNet had an article on a HotMail account that may have been compromised due to the user accessing it through an Internet cafe'. If this is your preferred computing platform while traveling, then I suggest you check out one of the Smart Drives from U3. With a Smart drive, you can boot a PC with the files that you carry on a USB flash drive, have it protect your data, and erase your activity upon completion. U3 does this with virtualization, as explained at Network World. Prices start at around $30.

So next time you travel, do not become the next victim -- prepare and protect yourself before you leave.

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