The Wi-Fi Planet Guide to Hotspot Safety for College Students - Page 2

By Aaron Weiss

December 17, 2008

4. Inoculate against viruses

You Mac users might have a reason to be smug—viruses for OS X are few and far between. Windows, on the other hand, is a different story. An unprotected Windows machine can be the target of more viruses than Paris Hilton.

Many Windows machines now come with third-party anti-virus software included; unfortunately, much of it is annoying—slowing down the system and consuming too many resources. Don't be afraid to remove the anti-virus junk that came with your Windows PC and install lightweight, free anti-virus protection such as Avast Home Edition or AVG Free Anti-Virus.

5. Protect your shared folders

Both Windows and Mac computers let you easily share folders with others on your network. But when you're connected to the campus wireless network, you probably don't want to share your files with a bunch of strangers.

The safest thing to do is disable file sharing, but if you do want to share folders, protect them using passwords or limiting access to specific users. Both Vista and OS X let you disable or limit access to shared folders.

6. Cover your tracks on the Web

Sometimes the convenience of wireless Internet is that even when you don't have your own computer at hand, the (cute) guy or gal sitting next to you might. But when you hop onto someone else's browser, you're leaving tracks that you might not want to leave. When you walk away, it might be possible for someone to get into your e-mail, for example.

The solution is "private browsing," a feature that prevents your Web activity from being saved in the browser's history. Also commonly known as "porn mode" (does that really need an explanation?), you can quickly enable private browsing in both Safari and Internet Explorer 8. The same feature is coming to Firefox 3.1 (expected soon), although if you'd like to add private browsing to your own existing Firefox you can use the Stealther add-on.

7. Really cover your tracks, everywhere

All of your wireless network activity can be logged and analyzed. It isn't likely that your school is doing this on a regular basis, but they could if they wanted to—possibly to prevent certain kinds of activity or investigate problems. But it's not just Big Brother who can see your wireless activity—smart computer experts can, too. And you know what institutions of higher learning are full of? Smart computer experts!

For truly incognito wireless networking, you might want to install Tor. When you use Tor, your network activity "bounces" through intermediate machines, making it impossible to identify or trace activity back to you. If you're thinking that Tor is just a tool for bad guys—maybe, but there are good reasons to use Tor, also. You might be researching a sensitive subject, for example, or even communicating with someone in an oppressive country.

8. Don't get caught downloading music and movies

The best part of being in college is making your own decisions. Right or wrong, college students download a lot of music and movies, and not always by paying for them. As a result, college students have become major targets of entertainment industry lawyers at the RIAA and MPAA who put pressure on colleges to find and prosecute "file sharers."

If you're using BitTorrent to get your file sharing on, there are a few ways to limit your exposure to nasty letters from attorneys.

Here are the facts:

  • Don't upload. Your BitTorrent software looks for files to share in a default folder (varies by program). Disable this feature or point BT to an empty folder. Letting BT share files from your machine is a good way to accidentally share private information or get the attention of Hollywood copyright lawyers.
  • Don't leave BT running after your download is complete. BT continues to share pieces of the file you are downloading back to the network; letting it do this after you've got what you came for might be good BT etiquette, but it's bad for your legal defense. Be sure that you truly exit the BT client, and don't simply minimize it out of view.
  • Install PeerGuardian, which will block connections to your machine from IP addresses known to be used by the BT police—e.g. Hollywood organizations who prowl the network looking for violators.

Whether you are spending your college days like Stifler or you’re a diligent student, Wi-Fi vulnerabilities are an equal opportunity destroyer. It doesn’t matter whether you were logging on for extra credit or for…extracurricular reasons. But, by following the nine guidelines above, you can protect yourself—and your beloved laptop or iPhone—from attack.

Aaron Weiss is a freelance writer, editor, and Wi-Fi enthusiast based in upstate New York. To submit your questions to the Wi-Fi Guru, simply click on Aaron's byline and put "Wi-Fi Guru" in the subject line. Click here to read a Wi-Fi Guru column. 

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