Is Free Public Wi-Fi Safe?

If you work remotely or travel a lot for your job, you probably take advantage of free public Wi-Fi often. Unfortunately, that probably means you’re regularly opening up your devices and your data to serious security threats. And if you’re a heavy user of cloud services, which often store your data on a remote server rather than your computer, Wi-Fi security is even more crucial.

Most people these days have password-protected networks at home, so it’s unlikely that anybody is able to snoop on your data as it passes between your device and your router. But when you’re surfing the Web via a free public Wi-Fi at a cafe, library or airport, you should be suspicious of everyone, says technology consultant Leo Notenboom of “It’s trivially easy for any of them to be watching your unencrypted information flying by.”

Here’s what you need to know to stay safe next time you’re surfing on a free public Wi-Fi connection.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 1: Turn on your firewall.
The cafe might use firewall software to protect your computer from outside attacks, but that doesn’t protect you from other people surfing around the same Wi-Fi network inside the cafe. Be sure your computer’s firewall is turned on.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 2: Protect your smartphone or tablet.
If your smartphone or tablet connects to Wi-Fi networks, require it to ask your permission before joining any network. A lot of people never change the default network name, so if you logged on to your friend’s “linksys” network, your device will remember that and could automatically join any network of the same name in the future -- unless you tell it to ask your permission first.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 3: Use strong encryption.

Encryption works by disguising data that your computer wirelessly sends to a router. Without it, that person sitting near you at the cafe could use special software to intercept and see all the data that travels back and forth between your device and the router. And that means everything: emails, passwords and things you search for. That’s why it’s imperative, says Notenboom, to use encrypted sites when possible.

How do you know when a site offers encryption? Instead of “http” at the beginning of the address, you’ll see “https.” You’ll also see a little padlock icon in your browser window, usually on the bottom right.

What else should you consider encrypting?

  • Your email. If you use a locally installed email program such as Outlook or Entourage, you can protect your mail and passwords by using something called SSL (secure sockets layer) on each of your accounts. This encrypts all your data when you send and receive email. Not all email providers allow the use of SSL, though, so check your provider’s help page.
  • Your Facebook and Twitter pages. Facebook and Twitter recently began offering encrypted sessions; just go into your account settings and find the option that says “Always use https.”
  • Your Google search. If you think the keywords you’re searching could be embarrassing or you prefer to keep your privacy, try the secure version of Google search. Instead of going to, do all of your searching at
  • Everything. Consider a VPN service. VPN stands for virtual private network and encrypts everything you send and receive. You can download free mobile VPN software from such a site as Hotspot Shield and everything -- instant messages, passwords, emails and websites -- will be virtually impenetrable to prying eyes whenever you’re using a free public Wi-Fi connection. Or if your employer offers its own VPN, always connect to it through your computer or mobile device.

“That guy in the corner of Starbucks with his laptop -- do you trust him with your private data?” asks Notenboom. Follow these Wi-Fi safety tips, and you won’t ever have to ever wonder.

Keep Your Data Safe When Telecommuting

Thanks to the Web, more and more people are working remotely -- from home or anywhere. But not commuting anymore doesn't mean you don't have the same security issues that your corporate-office counterparts do. Here's how to protect your data, devices and computer without an IT department:

1. Back up your data in the cloud.
It’s easy to lose all your work: One computer virus or hard-disk-drive meltdown, and your important files may vanish forever. That’s why, when working from home, backup is crucial. Instead of depending on bulky hardware, try the many cloud services on the Web. They back up new content every night while you sleep, keeping your files safe and allowing you access from any computer at any time.

"Backup used to be cost-prohibitive," says Phil Montero, founder and CEO of an online resource called You Can Work From Anywhere. But these days, many online services charge as little as $50 per year, depending on your needs. Mozy even offers certain amounts of backup for free. If you’re only backing up documents, Google Docs is another good bet.

2. Protect your computer and critical files.
If your employer issues you a PC or laptop to use at home, they'll often install security software or a Web-based security service to block viruses or bar hackers. But if you are self-employed, the burden of protecting your computer and data from the increasing array of online security threats falls squarely on your shoulders.

When choosing a cloud-based security service, be sure it protects your computer with antivirus, spyware and firewall programs. It should also constantly updates to protect you against evolving threats.

You should also limit your family members’ access to your work computer. "You have to be sure that the really critical stuff isn't made accessible to someone who shouldn't have access to it," says Jack M. Nilles, founder of JALA International, a global telecommuting consulting company. "That includes the kids getting on your computer and downloading something [harmful]."

Finally, keep passwords and ID numbers private so they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

3. Seamlessly collaborate with others.
Whether you work on your home computer once a week or full time, if you need to share files with colleagues, synchronization tools can help ensure you (or your team) are working on the correct or latest version of a document. The “old” way to do this was to copy the files from your home computer onto an external hard drive, CD or thumb drive and install them on your work computer. But this process sets you up for accidentally writing over the most recent files -- and what if this external backup device you were depending on is destroyed or lost?

Cloud services enable you to sync automatically to ensure speedy backups. Or try Microsoft’s FolderShare, which allows you to synchronize files with colleagues over the Web.

There's no doubt to the benefits of Web to the home office worker. That said, you want to be smart about security issues. To really cover your bases, in addition to backing up and securing your data, Niles also says it's important to get a clear protocol from your company or clients: "We recommend that telecommuters working for a company have a formal agreement specifically stating who is responsible for what." This way, you can always fall back on the agreed-upon security plan for your best-quality work away from your IT department.

The Wide World of Web Widgets

When Kyle Ford set out to create a customized iGoogle homepage, the 30-year-old Los Angeles native decided he wanted it to show information he needs every day -- such as current weather conditions and a calendar. Lucky for him, adding these features was easy thanks to a technology called "widgets." 

In technical terms, a widget is a chunk of programming code that delivers a small amount of content to a web page. At its core, a widget is a mini software application that you can incorporate into your own web page. This is do-it-yourself programming.

Also known as gadgets, badges, flake and snippets, widgets can help to enhance your personal web site or online profiles with video, music, photos and games. So with widgets, you don't need to hire a programmer or web designer to add content to your web site or MySpace profile, explains Pam Webber, vice president of product development and marketing for Widgetbox, a widget directory.

Ford, a product development manager at Ning, a technology company that also creates social networks and widgets, adds that: "Widgets take information you want and push it to you."

If you're ready to get started using widgets, here are the basics you need to know:

What are widgets?
Widgets have become so popular on the web these days, that you might not realize that you're already using them. For example, you may have a friend who has a profile on Facebook and she may have used the site's widget library to add special features to her profile such as iLike (a list of music she likes), the Traveler IQ Challenge (an interactive quiz), or the Virtual Bookshelf (a list of favorite books). If you've seen these features, then you have witnessed a widget in action.

On Ford's own family web site, House of Kyle, he creates widgets with family snapshots and home video so that others can copy and paste them on their own blogs, web sites or social network profiles.

These snippets of code can be found at many web sites on the Internet, including Widgets Lab, which offers widgets for a variety of functions. There is one that enables you to put your photos in a slideshow. Another one helps you to create your own comic strips. You can even add the New York Times' crossword puzzle to your personal web page. Many widgets are free, while some come with a nominal cost.

Why do you need widgets?
The easy answer: because they make your web pages more entertaining and a lot more fun. Adding widgets to your social networking profile or blog is tantamount to accessorizing. You wouldn't leave the house without your lucky watch or your favorite purse, would you? So why would you leave your Facebook page without a widget?

You can also find widgets that are useful for business (such as tracking the flights of colleagues who are traveling) and finance (like signing up for news feeds about the stock market), or family life (instead of emailing family and friends the latest video of your kids, let them copy a widget from your web site and paste it on their own.) Widgets can help you save time. For example, if you already have a blog, you can use an RSS (really simple syndication) widget to import your latest musings into your Facebook profile. Same goes for your Flickr photos -- you can use a widget to display your photo albums on your Facebook profile or personal web site.

How do I install widgets?
Widgets are getting easier to install every day. On some social networking sites, it's as simple as clicking one button. Other widget providers require that you download an installer. 

If you're a more sophisticated web user, you can install widgets the traditional way -- by copying the underlying code and manually pasting it into your web site's basic code. The web site usually needs to support either Flash or JavaScript. "One-click works beautifully," says Gina Bianchini, the co-founder and CEO of Ning. But the copy and paste method allows users "a lot more freedom and flexibility," she says.

To delete a widget -- either manually or with an installer -- you would delete the code that you inserted. On MySpace, for example, go to profile edit page, locate the section where your widget is displayed and delete the code. On Facebook, it's as simple as hitting the delete key next to where the widget lives on your profile.

Do widgets pose any downsides?
The popularity and ease of use of widgets has meant that more people are developing their own games, video and other types of widgets. Many web sites that feature easily downloadable widgets warn users that they are about to install something that could possibly include malicious code and result in damage to their computer. So how do you know whether a widget is safe? One way is to review user feedback. Sites like Yahoo! and Facebook, for example, show the number of times a widget has been downloaded and include reviews from actual users. This feedback can alert you to possible dangers. So even though most sites warn that you download widgets at your own risk, your best bet is to get them from companies you trust.

How to Recycle Computers, Cables, Keyboards and More

Computers -- and their accessories -- have become like cars: As soon as you buy one, it seems to become obsolete because there's already a newer, better and faster model. The question is not only whether you should upgrade frequently, but more important, what to do with your old computer, printer, monitor, keyboard or modem. And then there are those expensive printer cartridges, and what to do with them when the ink runs out is another vital question.

Unfortunately, in the past, most old computers and their accessories have ended up in landfills. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that in 2005, discarded electronics amounted to 1.9 to 2.2 million tons in the United States -- and the overwhelming majority ended up in landfills. Globally, the volume of electronics discarded has ballooned recently, with the environmental group Greenpeace estimating it amounts to 20 to 50 million tons generated each year.

"It's wrong to just throw your old computer in the trash," says Devon Diaz, a professional engineer who serves as CEO of Ease E-Waste, a California-certified and EPA compliant e-waste recycler. "There is lead in the circuit board and metals and other things that just don't break down in a landfill." There's also the possibility that some of these substances will leech into the groundwater supply.

Safe Disposal of Toxic Dangers

Before you decide to upgrade and trash your old PC or laptop or any peripherals, consider this list of products and the hazardous materials inside and how best to dispose of them -- for your and the planet’s sake:

1. Toner cartridge
The danger: The main ingredient of the black toner is a pigment commonly called “carbon black” -- the general term used to describe the commercial powder form of carbon, according to Lauren Ornelas, campaign director for the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a non-profit environmental group in San Jose, Calif., that focuses on the high-tech industry. “Inhalation is the primary exposure pathway, and acute exposure may lead to respiratory tract irritation,” Ornelas says. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified carbon black as a class 2B carcinogen, possibly carcinogenic to humans. Little information exists on the hazards of colored toners, Ornelas says. Some reports indicate that such toners (cyan, yellow and magenta) contain heavy metals.

What to do: Many of these cartridges can be recycled. Some office supply chains offer rebates if you return an empty cartridge. You can also contact the manufacturer or check on their web site, because some companies, such as Lexmark, will recycle the cartridges.

2. Ink-jet cartridge
The danger: The big question with a printer ink cartridge is: What is in the contents of the ink? Some people have allergic reactions to ink. In general, if all the ink has been used up, the cartridge can be disposed of safely, according to the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

What to do: There are many places that now accept ink cartridges for recycling -- some stores will pay you and some schools or charities collect cartridges for fundraising -- so you can avoid any risk of leftover ink seeping from a cartridge into the earth. Some manufacturers, such as HP through its Planet Partners program, include an envelope for you to return the used cartridge to them for recycling.

3. Computer monitor
The danger: The monitor is one of the worst computer components to stick in a landfill, particularly the older and bigger cathode ray tube monitors, which are similar to TV sets in their makeup. “Each monitor or TV has a minimum of three to eight pounds of lead, a known neurotoxin and carcinogen,” Ornelas says. These monitors often have such toxic materials as mercury, cadmium and chromium, all of which are hazardous to the environment, according to the EPA. Flame-retardant materials used in the plastic also contain bromide, which in high dosages can cause neurological damage. "There's nothing nice about a computer monitor," adds Diaz, although some components can be recycled.

What to do: If your old monitor is still working, it can still be used. Check with local schools or charities to see if they accept donations. Some computer makers, such as Apple, will accept your old monitor back for recycling if you buy a new one. The SVTC web site lists manufacturers with take-back programs. The group is also a member of the Electronic Takeback Campaign, which lists responsible recyclers on its web site. Greenpeace also found recently that there is a market for recycled computers abroad.

4. Computer CPU
The danger: The computer's central processing unit, or CPU, contains another mix of toxic substances, including cadmium in semiconductor chips and mercury in switches on the printed circuit boards. Printed circuit boards also contain lead. If ingested, cadmium can damage your kidneys; mercury can cause neurological damage; and lead can disrupt brain neurotransmitters. And that's not all. Beryllium, a lightweight metal, is typically found in the motherboard. Ornelas says, "It has been classified as a human carcinogen, as exposure from it can cause lung cancer."

What to do: Make sure, first, that you can't get more life out of your CPU by adding memory or hard-drive space. Like a monitor, this piece of equipment may be of use to a charity or school before it ends up in the trash. If you donate this item, make sure you remove all personal data from the computer first. Major computer makes, such as Dell and Gateway, have programs to help you dispose of this e-waste. As with computer monitors, check out organizations such as SVTC or the Electronic Takeback Campaign for responsible recyclers.

5. Cables
The danger: A recent study by Greenpeace reported that polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was found in 44 percent of all plastic coating of internal wires and external cables that the group tested. When incinerated, the group says, these release dioxins, which are known to increase the likelihood of cancer. Phthalates, which the EPA has found can cause damage to the liver and testes from long-term exposure, were found in the power cables supplied with laptops examined by Greenpeace.

What to do: Many of these cables have value to recyclers because of copper wires inside. To find a list of responsible recyclers, consult SVTC, the Electronic Takeback Campaign, or the EPA has a list on its eCycling web site where you can find groups that accept computer components for recycling or reuse.

6. Keyboard, mouse, modem or printers
The danger: A keyboard, mouse or printer is typically made of plastic with a little circuit board in it. While these aren't worth a whole lot to recyclers, Diaz says, they are definitely something that you want to keep out of landfills, especially printers. “They're nothing but big hunks of plastic and steel,” Diaz says. Modems and networking equipment are also made of plastics and circuit boards -- so they contain a bit of all the bad things in those materials, like lead solder on the chips.

What to do: While these items don't contain a lot of valuable metals or other substances for recyclers, some responsible recyclers can get the solder off the circuit boards and reuse this material, Diaz says. In addition to the SVTC, the Electronic Takeback Campaign and the EPA, try Free Geek, an organization that lists other organizations that push for more electronics recycling, for names of responsible recyclers.

7. Laptop battery
The danger: Many older laptops used rechargeable nickel-cadmium (NiCa) batteries, which contain hazardous cadmium. Newer laptops, fortunately, are relying on newer types of batteries (nickel-metal hydride and lithium ion), which are not as hazardous.

What to do: A lot of these old batteries are recyclable, Diaz says. “You can take the casing off and there are other good materials that can be refurbished and reused.” Check out the web site of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., a nonprofit that collects used rechargeable batteries -- including all three types listed above -- to find a drop-off site near you.

The Reward of Properly Disposing of Electronics
If you’re feeling daunted by the toxic dangers, here’s the good news: A recent study funded by Greenpeace found that there is an eager market for used or recycled computers and other goods abroad. In the end, the extra effort to recycle these electronics -- or their parts -- is worth it for your family and the planet. Otherwise, e-waste that ends up at the dump will have a lasting negative impact, Diaz says: “They'll be there for years and years and years.”