The Wi-Fi Planet Guide to Hotspot Safety for College Students

The Wi-Fi Planet Guide to Hotspot Safety for College Students

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Written By Eric Sandler

By Aaron Weiss

December 17, 2008

From defending yourself against viruses (the computer kind!) to protecting your passwords or avoiding prosecution from the music industry, there are eight simple things students can do to stay safe when using Wi-Fi on or off campus.

A mere fifteen years ago, college campuses were devoid of cell phones. Laptop computers were rare. The Internet was new, and consisted basically of plain old e-mail. To use it, we had to sign up in advance or wait in lines at computer labs that were usually stuffed into basements. There was no Facebook—only real books. In other words, I’m old. But you’re not!

If you’re a college student today, you grew up not only with the Internet, but also—thanks to Wi-Fi—Internet anywhere. Today, three in five students expect their school to provide wireless Internet access throughout campus. Colleges and universities are meeting the demand, with nearly all expected to have deployed wireless campus networks in the next five years.

College life also includes a lot of annoying lectures about being safe—behind the wheel, at parties, in bed—and so here’s another one. Wireless Internet is convenient, but it can also leave you vulnerable. All that data you’re transmitting is flying through the air at light speed. Cool! But also (potentially) dangerous.From defending yourself against viruses (the computer kind!) to protecting your passwords to avoiding prosecution from the music industry, consider these eight steps to being safe when you go wireless.

1. Membership has its privileges—don’t be a guest

Depending on the wireless network in place at your school, there may be several different kinds of security in place. A secure network may limit who can connect to it and/or use data encryption to prevent anyone from intercepting useful information from your wireless transmissions.

– If your campus has a “guest” wireless network, this may be the least secure. Guest networks are usually intended for visitors to campus who cannot register for the more secure campus network because they do not have school credentials (like faculty or students). Guest networks may also be slower and more restricted, so if you don’t need to use the guest network, don’t.

– If you’ve used a secure wireless network at home, you know that you usually need to enter a password to establish a connection. The more sophisticated secure wireless networks on college campuses do not usually rely on a single global password (not very secure if thousands of people know it!). Instead you will configure your wireless connection to use an individual sign on, often a school ID. Of course, the process varies and details will be provided by your school’s IT help desk.

– Some schools require you to register your laptop for access to the network; once registered, you may have the option to connect to either an unsecure (“open”) or secure network. There really is no good reason to use the unsecure network, unless for some reason your (very old) laptop does not support the security protocol being used.

2. Don’t be fooled by a fake network

When you scan for available networks with your PC, the names you see are being broadcast by wireless access points (AP) located in the area. Unfortunately, there may be a trap—known as a “Viral SSID”—which makes itself look like a tempting connection point.

Common viral SSID’s include names like “Free Public Wifi” or “free internet” and they will be open networks, meaning they are not locked down with security. But here’s the trap—if you connect to one of these, your computer may be vulnerable to infection or, all of your activity may be captured by the evil AP in the hopes of finding passwords or other sensitive information.These fake networks are actually being broadcast by another laptop computer in your vicinity—a laptop, which has been infected and its brain taken over, like a zombie, possibly without the owner’s knowledge. Be wary of connecting to unknown networks, particularly those with tempting names! [For more on this, read “When “Free Public Wi-Fi” Is Bad.”

 3. One word: Firewall

Anytime you connect to a network, your computer is potentially exposed to threats from other computers. On a wireless network, many machines come and go frequently, potentially exposing you to more infected companions sharing the network with you.

A firewall can close off incoming routes to your machine from bad PCs. A firewall can also regulate which software on your machine is allowed to communicate over the network. Whether you use Vista or OS X, be sure that your firewall is enabled and, at the very least, configured to use default settings.

4. Inoculate against viruses

You Mac users might have a reason to be smug—viruses for OS X are few and far between. Windows, on the other hand, is a different story. An unprotected Windows machine can be the target of more viruses than Paris Hilton.

Many Windows machines now come with third-party anti-virus software included; unfortunately, much of it is annoying—slowing down the system and consuming too many resources. Don’t be afraid to remove the anti-virus junk that came with your Windows PC and install lightweight, free anti-virus protection such as Avast Home Edition or AVG Free Anti-Virus.

5. Protect your shared folders

Both Windows and Mac computers let you easily share folders with others on your network. But when you’re connected to the campus wireless network, you probably don’t want to share your files with a bunch of strangers. The safest thing to do is disable file sharing, but if you do want to share folders, protect them using passwords or limiting access to specific users. Both Vista and OS X let you disable or limit access to shared folders.

6. Cover your tracks on the Web

Sometimes the convenience of wireless Internet is that even when you don’t have your own computer at hand, the (cute) guy or gal sitting next to you might. But when you hop onto someone else’s browser, you’re leaving tracks that you might not want to leave. When you walk away, it might be possible for someone to get into your e-mail, for example.

The solution is “private browsing,” a feature that prevents your Web activity from being saved in the browser’s history. Also commonly known as “porn mode” (does that really need an explanation?), you can quickly enable private browsing in both Safari and Internet Explorer 8. The same feature is coming to Firefox 3.1 (expected soon), although if you’d like to add private browsing to your own existing Firefox you can use the Stealther add-on.

7. Really cover your tracks, everywhere

All of your wireless network activity can be logged and analyzed. It isn’t likely that your school is doing this on a regular basis, but they could if they wanted to—possibly to prevent certain kinds of activity or investigate problems. But it’s not just Big Brother who can see your wireless activity—smart computer experts can, too. And you know what institutions of higher learning are full of? Smart computer experts!

For truly incognito wireless networking, you might want to install Tor. When you use Tor, your network activity “bounces” through intermediate machines, making it impossible to identify or trace activity back to you. If you’re thinking that Tor is just a tool for bad guys—maybe, but there are good reasons to use Tor, also. You might be researching a sensitive subject, for example, or even communicating with someone in an oppressive country.

8. Don’t get caught downloading music and movies

The best part of being in college is making your own decisions. Right or wrong, college students download a lot of music and movies, and not always by paying for them. As a result, college students have become major targets of entertainment industry lawyers at the RIAA and MPAA who put pressure on colleges to find and prosecute “file sharers.”

If you’re using BitTorrent to get your file sharing on, there are a few ways to limit your exposure to nasty letters from attorneys.

Here are the facts:

  • Don’t upload. Your BitTorrent software looks for files to share in a default folder (varies by program). Disable this feature or point BT to an empty folder. Letting BT share files from your machine is a good way to accidentally share private information or get the attention of Hollywood copyright lawyers.
  • Don’t leave BT running after your download is complete. BT continues to share pieces of the file you are downloading back to the network; letting it do this after you’ve got what you came for might be good BT etiquette, but it’s bad for your legal defense. Be sure that you truly exit the BT client, and don’t simply minimize it out of view.
  • Install PeerGuardian, which will block connections to your machine from IP addresses known to be used by the BT police—e.g. Hollywood organizations who prowl the network looking for violators.

Whether you are spending your college days like Stifler or you’re a diligent student, Wi-Fi vulnerabilities are an equal opportunity destroyer. It doesn’t matter whether you were logging on for extra credit or for…extracurricular reasons. But, by following the nine guidelines above, you can protect yourself—and your beloved laptop or iPhone—from attack.

Aaron Weiss is a freelance writer, editor, and Wi-Fi enthusiast based in upstate New York. To submit your questions to the Wi-Fi Guru, simply click on Aaron’s byline and put “Wi-Fi Guru” in the subject line. Click here to read a Wi-Fi Guru column. 

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