Safe journeys with your data

 In today’s world, where much of work and private life is organised online, the mobile use of computers and instant accessibility of data is taken for granted.
   We want the ability to access the internet from anywhere in the world by either taking our personal laptops, smart-phones or other mobile devices such as PDAs with us or by logging onto public computers.
   Yet all of these devices are facing different levels of security risks that may compromise personal and business data and facilitate identity theft.
   While it is difficult enough to protect your data and identity when using your computer and the internet from your home or office, it becomes even more of a challenge when travelling.
   Public computers
   Public computers are everywhere from internet cafes and airports to public libraries and hotels.
   Unfortunately many people do not know how to take proper security precautions when using public computers.
   Any public computer that allows the download of files or the insertion of USB sticks for example is extremely susceptible to infection with viruses or malware.
   This type of software is often designed to collect information and transmitted data or record the activity of unsuspecting users of public computers.
   Key-logging software for instance can be used to track usernames and password entered into the machines.
   When using public computers it is therefore important to remember that they are a bigger target for criminals than the personal computer at home. This includes the risk that in public places everything one does, such as typing passwords, is visible to others.
   Whenever possible the use of a public computer to access websites that require a log in or that store personal information should be avoided. Most importantly nothing should be purchased through a public computer by using a credit card.
   If you have to log in to a website using a public computer, you should make sure that any auto-complete or other memory features have been disabled. Changing the password you used at the earliest possible time after your return is also recommended.
   When finished it may be a good idea to erase the browser history and cookies and to log out.
   Another option that is becoming more widespread to connect to the internet, check email or send data files is Wi-Fi.
   Most laptop computers have wireless connectivity nowadays and accessing the internet using Wi-Fi or wireless networks in public places such as the airport or hotels is safer than using public computers. But there are still risks, mainly because Wi-Fi security at home is very different from Wi-Fi security in public hot spots.
   At home you can control your Wi-Fi network and only grant access to specific users. In public networks you share a network with complete strangers.
   Non-sensitive information such as Facebook updates or surfing the web are not so much of an issue when using an open network. However, email use or online shopping and banking require more caution.
   Open and unprotected Wi-Fi connections invite hackers to intercept data that is transmitted via the network.
   So-called sniffers use software to detect open networks and grab the data packets that are sent via the Wi-Fi network. Other types of hackers set up pretend Wi-Fi networks, which steal data, log in details and passwords from unsuspecting users.
   This technique is best compared to phishing attacks where hackers establish a website in the guise of a bank and try to lure bank customers to divulge personal banking details.
   How prevalent these attacks are is unclear, but different surveys of airports have found the number of unprotected Wi-Fi networks to be in the majority.
   The best means of protection against these threats are using a firewall and encryption software.
   Firewalls are included in the latest Apple or Microsoft operating systems. They may need to be activated and should also be adjusted to offer a better protection when using public Wi-Fi than at home.
   At the same time any sensitive information that is sent should be encrypted.
   Encryption is easy on your home or business network, but much more difficult on a public network.
   Generally, all Wi-Fi enabled devices have built-in security measures. Users just need to remember to activate them and enter a password. WPA2 is the most up-to-date wireless encryption security system and offers better protection than the previous version WPA or WEP.
   But public networks often do not use WPA or WPA2. If encryption is used by the Wi-Fi network this is typically described in a privacy statement on the network’s website.
   If there is no network encryption the easiest solution is to only use secure web pages to transmit sensitive data.
   For example, if you have to enter credit card numbers when using Wi-Fi, you should make sure that a padlock icon or SSL key is shown in the browser window and that the web-address begins with https instead of http.
   Web-based email can also be more secure than your normal email software, but some web-based email service only use secure web pages for the log in but not for the transfer of emails.
   The most secure way to protect sensitive information is to use a Virtual Private Network. VPNs are used by some companies as access to their intranet for example. By forcing a computer to connect to the corporate network first and from there to the Internet all the data is completely encrypted.
   Sensitive information that is on the computer can also be protected with encryption. This is not only important to prevent access to the laptop through unprotected networks, but also in case your laptop is lost or stolen.
   In summary you should only connect to networks that you trust and the communication itself should be secure.    
   In addition it is important to disconnect once you have finished using the wireless connection.
   Mobile phones have become the most convenient alternative to public computers and personal laptops when travelling.
   In February 2010’s iPass Mobile Workforce Survey 63 per cent of people surveyed stated they preferred a smartphone over a laptop as their primary mobile device.
   Most of these, a third, use a Blackberry but more than half of the Blackberry users said they preferred to use the Apple iPod if it was supported by their company.
   While mobile phones benefit from encrypted networks, they face the same issues as laptops when switching to Wi-Fi.
   Particularly on travels using the mobile phone network to send or receive large amounts of data can be expensive, which makes using a public Wi-Fi network more attractive.  
   Smartphone users have to make sure that the web sites and web applications they use to access and transfer confidential information are secure.
   Alternative mobile phone connection such as Bluetooth or infra-red are also exposed to the risk that intruders could access contacts, text messages and other data stored on your smartphone. These connections should therefore be turned off whenever they are not in use.