The price of free unsecured hot spots is the risk that other users on the same network could be getting all your Internet traffic free. You can use solutions like Tor and virtual private networks to encrypt your data packets to keep them from prying eyes, but you also need to be aware of nondigital threats to your privacy.
Data Packet Transmission
Wireless routers don't send the data packets for your Web traffic to just your computer. Data packets are simply broadcast to every computer on the Wi-Fi network. By default, your wireless adapter disregards all the data packets that aren't addressed to your device. However, devices in promiscuous mode read all the data packets that cross the network. If these data packets aren't encrypted, the user can read your traffic as if it was his own.
One option you have for encrypting your traffic over unsecured hotspots is to use Tor. It started out as a military project for securing government communications and has developed into a tool for anyone who wants to keep her Internet browsing anonymous and secure. Tor routes your browsing through a series of different server nodes to disguise your traffic's true destination, but it also creates an encrypted connection between your computer and Tor's servers. The service is free to download and use.
You can also protect your traffic by using a virtual private network. VPN services give you two layers of protection: They encrypt the traffic between your computer and the VPN servers, and they keep you anonymous by using their own servers to fetch data over the Web. A variety of companies offer VPN services and generally charge a subscription fee to their users.
Encrypting your data packets can protect you from digital snooping. However, you have to remember that you can fall victim to old-fashioned eavesdropping. Cyber snoopers don't have to read your data packets if they can just look over your shoulder to see you type your usernames and passwords and conduct your online business. In addition to encrypting your traffic at public hotspots, you should be mindful of how visible your screen and keyboard are to others, look out for anyone who seems to pay too much attention to your screen, and be wary of people lingering where they can see what you are doing online.
- Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images