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  • Public WiFi: The Dangers
Technology Articles > Software > Security & Privacy > Public WiFi: The Dangers

So many coffee shops are offering free WiFi these days. On one hand, this is marvelous. We live
in a connected society, and with access to the Internet in restaurants, cafes, and public parks, we
can be connected at any moment of any day. This is truly an amazing era.

On the other hand, with the benefits of free WiFi come a number of dangers associated with that
any user of the Internet should be aware of. Next time you log on to your e-mail or Facebook
while at a busy coffee shop, keep in mind that you could be sharing more than your table.

Unencrypted Connections are Dangerous

Whenever you send information over an unencrypted network, you are always risking
interception by unscrupulous hackers who could be sharing the same connection. Whenever
you log on to a site like Facebook, for example, your password is sent securely. However, the
_cookies_ are relayed back to your computer over _unencrypted_ connections in many cases.

What does this mean? It means that someone with a little extra free time and the desire to be an
online miscreant could do so any time you log on with an unencrypted connection.

The Example of Firesheep

Lest you believe that this is merely an example of something that a small minority of hackers can
do, bear in mind the example of Firesheep. Firesheep is a plugin for Google Chrome and Firefox
that allows users to intercept the aforementioned Session Cookies easily and intuitively.

In other words, Firesheep makes hacking into accounts something that laymen can do.

Watch out for yourself _any_ time you log in online, but especially if you are using an
unencrypted connection. It's not hopeless, though. It can be very easy to protect yourself if you
just know a few simple principles. Keep these principles in mind whenever you log on to a site
when at a public coffee shop, and you will be well-protected.

1. **Only log on to your personal Web sites via public WiFi if you absolutely have to.**
Are you at the coffee shop and need to check your email? Hold off, if you can. The best
way to safeguard leaks is to prevent the possibility of leaks from arising in the first place.

2. **Change your password regularly.** As a general rule of thumb, you should change
your passwords every time you change your clocks. For sites which are important for
you to keep secure, use different passwords for each site. You can use [random password
generators][rpg] to come up with safe, secure passwords. Store these in a safe place.

3. Look for *https*. This means that your information is being sent over a secure

Ok. Let's say you _absolutely need_ to check Facebook while at Starbucks. _Make sure_ that
you can see "https" in the browser menu. If you can't, then you're sending your information over
an unencrypted connection, and therefore you are at risk.

Be careful. Don't send anything over public WiFi that you wouldn't also send on a postcard.