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

By Aaron Weiss

December 17, 2008

From defending yourself against viruses (the computer kind!) to protecting your passwords or avoiding prosecution from the music industry, there are eight simple things students can do to stay safe when using Wi-Fi on or off campus.

A mere fifteen years ago, college campuses were devoid of cell phones. Laptop computers were rare. The Internet was new, and consisted basically of plain old e-mail. To use it, we had to sign up in advance or wait in lines at computer labs that were usually stuffed into basements. There was no Facebook—only real books. In other words, I'm old. But you're not!

If you're a college student today, you grew up not only with the Internet, but also—thanks to Wi-Fi—Internet anywhere. Today, three in five students expect their school to provide wireless Internet access throughout campus. Colleges and universities are meeting the demand, with nearly all expected to have deployed wireless campus networks in the next five years.

College life also includes a lot of annoying lectures about being safe—behind the wheel, at parties, in bed—and so here's another one. Wireless Internet is convenient, but it can also leave you vulnerable. All that data you're transmitting is flying through the air at light speed. Cool! But also (potentially) dangerous.

From defending yourself against viruses (the computer kind!) to protecting your passwords to avoiding prosecution from the music industry, consider these eight steps to being safe when you go wireless.

1. Membership has its privileges—don't be a guest

Depending on the wireless network in place at your school, there may be several different kinds of security in place. A secure network may limit who can connect to it and/or use data encryption to prevent anyone from intercepting useful information from your wireless transmissions.

- If your campus has a "guest" wireless network, this may be the least secure. Guest networks are usually intended for visitors to campus who cannot register for the more secure campus network because they do not have school credentials (like faculty or students). Guest networks may also be slower and more restricted, so if you don't need to use the guest network, don't.

- If you've used a secure wireless network at home, you know that you usually need to enter a password to establish a connection. The more sophisticated secure wireless networks on college campuses do not usually rely on a single global password (not very secure if thousands of people know it!). Instead you will configure your wireless connection to use an individual sign on, often a school ID. Of course, the process varies and details will be provided by your school's IT help desk.

- Some schools require you to register your laptop for access to the network; once registered, you may have the option to connect to either an unsecure ("open") or secure network. There really is no good reason to use the unsecure network, unless for some reason your (very old) laptop does not support the security protocol being used.

2. Don't be fooled by a fake network

When you scan for available networks with your PC, the names you see are being broadcast by wireless access points (AP) located in the area. Unfortunately, there may be a trap—known as a "Viral SSID"—which makes itself look like a tempting connection point.

Common viral SSID's include names like "Free Public Wifi" or "free internet" and they will be open networks, meaning they are not locked down with security. But here's the trap—if you connect to one of these, your computer may be vulnerable to infection or, all of your activity may be captured by the evil AP in the hopes of finding passwords or other sensitive information.

These fake networks are actually being broadcast by another laptop computer in your vicinity—a laptop, which has been infected and its brain taken over, like a zombie, possibly without the owner's knowledge. Be wary of connecting to unknown networks, particularly those with tempting names! [For more on this, read “When "Free Public Wi-Fi" Is Bad.”

 3. One word: Firewall

Anytime you connect to a network, your computer is potentially exposed to threats from other computers. On a wireless network, many machines come and go frequently, potentially exposing you to more infected companions sharing the network with you.

A firewall can close off incoming routes to your machine from bad PCs. A firewall can also regulate which software on your machine is allowed to communicate over the network. Whether you use Vista or OS X, be sure that your firewall is enabled and, at the very least, configured to use default settings.

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