23 May 2012

What are Wi-Fi Hotspots?

If you’ve been to an Officeworks store lately you’ll probably have heard their PA messages announcing that you can now access the internet for free within their store.  How does that work?  Officeworks have established a Wi-Fi hotspot within their stores.

A hotspot is a location that offers a wireless access point where you can connect mobile devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet) to the internet.   Hotspots can be found in airports, cafes, libraries, coffee shops, hotels, and other public places.  Although some venues charge for access, the majority offer it free to entice customers to their business.

Wi-Fi hotspots are great if you’re travelling or maybe you’d like to get some work done in your favourite cafĂ©, rather than your office.  A Wi-Fi hotspot is easy to connect to and allows you to do anything you’d normally do on the internet from your home or office.

How do you find a Wi-Fi hotspot?  Look around when you’re out and you’ll probably see signs all over the place –or visit http://www.freewifi.com.au/index.htm for a directory of Australian hotspots.

 The basics - how do you connect to a Wi-Fi Hotspot?

1.      Open your device and search for wireless networks.
2.      Connect to the applicable wireless network (ask the staff for the network name/s).
3.      Open your internet browser (e.g. Internet Explorer) - you should be redirected to the hotspot's 'portal' .
4.      Click CONNECT, or you’ll find instructions for setting up an account (if required) on the portal.
5.      You should be redirected to your homepage and you’ll now be free to browse the internet, send/receive email etc.

However, if it’s easy for you to access a Wi-Fi hotspot, then it’s also easy for anyone else, and sharing a network with complete strangers can cause some security issues. 

How do you connect SAFELY to a Wi-Fi Hotspot?

When you display available connections on your laptop (or smartphone or tablet) you’ll see a list of ‘secure’ and ‘unsecure’ networks.  The venue will let you know which are their networks.  Choose a secure option – look for WPA2.  This means that the venue will need to provide you with a password/security key to access their network.    However, this just means that you are safe from people who aren’t on the network.  Other people at the hotspot can see what you’re doing because they are logged on with the same password.  So, what can you do to protect yourself?

1.       Use a firewall

A firewall protects your computer from unauthorized access when you are connected to a network.  Your firewall should be on at all times, but it’s especially important when you’re using public Wi-Fi networks. In Windows 7, go to your Control Panel and click on Windows Firewall. This window will show whether your Windows Firewall is activated or not.  If you have internet security software that includes Firewall protection, which replaces the Windows Firewall, it will also be indicated in this window.

2.       Restrict sharing options

Make sure you disable file and printer sharing options.

·      From the Control Panel choose Network and Sharing Centre.  Click on Advanced sharing settings.

·      Turn off File and printer sharing and Public folder sharing

·      Turn off Network discovery, which makes your computer harder to be seen by others on the network.

3.       Careful what you do on a public network

Try not to open any sensitive files, and avoid financial transactions if you can. The usual security precautions apply – anytime you have to provide personal details or a credit card online, make sure the website begins with https://, indicating the site is secure and all transaction data is encrypted.  If you are using Internet Explorer, look for the padlock at the right had end of the address bar.

What’s the risk?

Besides someone else at the hotspot being able to view what you’re doing on your computer, there are other, more serious, risks.  A rogue or ‘poisoned’ hotspot refers to a free public hotspot set up by identity thieves or hackers for the purpose of intercepting any information being sent over the Wi-Fi network. These rogue hotspots are usually unsecured Wi-Fi networks that mimic the network you think you’re connecting to.  It’s most common in hotels, and the hotel often doesn’t know it’s happening.  A hacker in another hotel room can intercept any data on the hotel’s wired or wireless networks and can easily attack unsecured devices.  The key here is always use secured networks.

Wi-Fi Hotspots can be very useful when you’re travelling, or if you need to connect to the internet away from your home or office – just make sure you do it securely.

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