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Wireless Data, Updated

What you’re paying for and how to protect yourself from Wi-Fi spies

By now, we have all encountered wireless networking somewhere. Its forms are many: home networks to share a single Internet connection; wireless cards from providers like Sprint to stay connected on the road; subscriber services so we can “surf and latte” at Starbucks; wireless access for surfing through mini-screens on cell phones and PDAs.
    Here are some details to help you make the most of this new technology.

If you want to find Internet hot spots near where you’ll be going before you travel, a number of websites not only tell you where the connections are, but who provides the service at what charge.
    A search at JiWire (www.jiwire.com) for a remote location outside San Antonio turned up 36 hot spots within 20 miles. Pick your spot and click to generate a map with driving directions.
    Most if not all of these sites charge for their access; visit the Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory (www.wififreespot.com) to find spots that do not charge. A possible snag: While you might be able to access the Internet, your e-mail retrieval will be blocked unless you have a web-based account. In other words, if you only can access your e-mail through an application like Microsoft Outlook, you won’t be able to get it through these free services.
    Many major phone providers also sell wireless data services (and provide the wireless card) for your notebook. The cards access their networks only and work just about anywhere your cell phone works, but they don’t roam the way cell phones do. In addition, instead of a block of minutes, the data services sell monthly blocks of downloaded data.
    The catch: Surfing or not, you’re being charged as long as you’re connected. Just log in and leave up the connection screen, which displays the amount of data being sent and received. The meter runs even when no data traffic is evident. It goes into hyperdrive when you access a heavy graphics site like CNN.
    It’s easy to max out even the largest monthly block; then you enter the expensive realm of per-MB charges. If you use these connections, either pony up for unlimited access or prepare to be frugal with your connection time. 

Early adopters of cell phones remember listening to conversations between other parties when they changed towers, or when someone with the same service provider and a stronger phone drove by.
    The same phenomenon occurs with wireless data connections. A new Peeping Tom has evolved, one who might be the company down the hall or your neighbor. Not only can spies access the Internet by secretly using a neighbor’s broadband wireless network, but they can access her hard drives and intercept data she is sending.
    For this reason, you must protect the personal information available on your PC. Take these measures:
    Make sure the drives on your PC are not marked to be shared. This is probably the most overlooked security move. Many people take a notebook back and forth to work and need to share their drives when plugged into the office network. Simply forgetting to change that setting when they log in from home opens up their PCs to spies.
    Turn on encryption for your wireless service. Yes, this will slow down the connection speed, but waiting a second or two for encryption is much better than seeing your neighbor down the street show up with new golf clubs you’re paying for.
    Stay informed about updates to your operating system and software. Most new releases have been issued precisely to provide security and encryption.
    For more information on wireless issues, check out eWeek (www.eweek.com).