Secure Your Open Wi-Fi Browsing

Most people have learned to encrypt their local wireless connections, but it remains a problem for those on the road accessing open wireless hotspots, either through their laptops or iPads or smartphones with Wi-Fi access.

There have been a few articles on the web recently about Firesheep, a new Firefox plugin that let’s people snoop on other computers accessing an open Wi-Fi hotspot, like at your hotel or airport or local coffee shop.

With Firesheep, you can monitor others using the same Wi-Fi hotspot and log into their FaceBook, Twitter or Flickr account as them. Easily. With a mouse click. Get personal information, add nasty stuff, change the password and take over the whole account. Whatever you want to do.

So what do you do? First, you can only access sites through SSL, meaning an https address. But that limits you to the sites you can safely visit and even that won’t protect you if, like some sites, they send back a cookie in the clear that can be intercepted.

The new choice for road warriors is your own Virtual Private Network (VPN). That’s where you create a secure connection to a server online and do your browsing from there, preventing anyone nearby from intercepting your traffic.

Paul Colligan offers two possible solutions – HotSpot Shield (free, but has ads) and (starting at $39.99/yr).

Some others I’ve found are AlwaysVPN (price based on bandwidth), AceVPN and StrongVPN (monthly service).

You’ll have to try them out to see if their servers provide the speed you require, but an added advantage is that your web browsing becomes anonymous – no one can track your location or surfing habits.

It pays to be secure online, but it looks like you’ll now have to pay to do so.

[Update Oct. 7, 2011]

Came across a free VPN service called proXPN. You have to register (you’ll be using their servers as a pass-through to the Internet) but it may be worth checking out.