Keeping Information Private on a Public Computer

For a change of scenery, I often work at a coffee shop with free wi-fi or my local library. Both places are usually full of kids and adults on laptops or sitting at public computers. This is a great resource but public computers and wireless connections are not always secure.

For instance, I just heard about a free add-on to the Firefox browser called Firesheep. Using Firesheep, Gary LosHuertos, sat at a Starbucks and accessed people’s open accounts.  Within 30 minutes, he had access to 20-40 individuals accounts. Mr. LosHuertos could not change passwords and completely take over accounts, but he could read  and post messages.  Many of the most popular websites, such as Facebook, Amazon and Twitter are vulnerable to Firesheep.

Firesheep does not steal passwords. Instead, it collects cookies from other people’s computers on the wi-fi network.  With the cookies, the website now thinks your computer is your neighbor’s computer.  You now have access to their open accounts.

On a public computer gaining access to an account can be even easier.  Many kids believe by closing their browser window they have successfully logged out.  However, many websites remain open unless a user chooses to Log Out.  Without logging out, the next user at the computer will find your account fully opened.

When using public computers and wi-fi connections, kids should remember:

  • Never access or enter financial information including banking, loan applications (student loans), or credit card numbers
  • Create one e-mail for personal correspondence and another throw away e-mail for online activities such as free web services. This account can easily be closed if compromised.
  • Never give out passwords, social security numbers or other sensitive information.
  • Do not use the same password for all accounts.
  • Remove all cookies and browsing history from public computers by going to the tools menu of the  browser and select options or internet options.
  • Do not leave accounts open always remember to Log Out not just close the browser window.
  • Never leave computer unattended and be aware of people around you.
  •  Use a firewall on a laptop when accessing free wi-fi.