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Staying Safe on Other People’s Computers

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If you’re traveling and using internet cafes, using library or school computer labs, using a computer in an adjunct office in a classroom, etc., you may be exposing your personal information to hackers or risking the chance of getting a virus on your USB stick.

Here are a few articles I’ve found that may be helpful. You don’t have to drive yourself crazy with these precautions, but follow as many as you reasonably can. I’ve found that most people don’t realize either how easy it is for even casual miscreants to swipe passwords from wifi networks (in certain situations), or that things such as keyloggers (which record everything you type–like your usernames and passwords) even exist.

To these suggestions I would add just a few more:

– Given a choice, if a machine is running any browser other than IE, use the other browser (e.g. Firefox, Chrome, or Safari). For one thing, Internet Explorer tends to have the most security flaws at any given time, and Firefox, Chrome, and Safari tend to have fewer (see this page for a comparison of the up-to-date versions only. Never use a really old version of IE or any other browser, which is likely to have a variety of well-known security flaws. Another reason is that IE tends to be a popular target for people who want to exploit security weaknesses.

– Given a choice, if a computer lab or library lets you choose between Mac and Windows machines, and you can get your browsing or other work done on a Mac, choose the Macs. This is not necessarily because of any inherent properties of the Macs, but because the Windows machines (being more common) are more likely targets for casual hackers. (The only drawback is that in a few school and library labs, the Macs are poorly maintained because the lab staff doesn’t understand them, but you’ll soon realize if that’s the case.)

– If there’s a website that does not use https:// or SSL to log you in with your password, just don’t use it on a public machine or public wifi. If you really must use it–like a WordPress-based blog that you want to update from the road–look for solutions. (For example, you can add the Semisecure Login plugin to your WordPress installation, which adds some level of security.)

– If you use public computers frequently, consider keeping a USB drive that only has your own copy of Firefox and other Portable Apps on it (no personal information). (Or you may wish to consider a “secure USB drive” that is meant to resist having its data altered, to keep personal information safe and to avoid introducing malware back onto your own system.)

– Keep these suggestions in mind when borrowing friends’ computers, as well. Many people are surprisingly lax about updating their browsers, running and updating antivirus and antispyware, etc.

If you have other suggestions or further reading, please leave a comment!

Precautions

Sorry for the long radio silence here and on Twitter, etc.! I went to a convention over Memorial Day weekend, and when I came back, my place had been broken into. My beloved MacBook Pro was stolen, among other things. I hadn’t backed up as often as I should have, because too much other stuff has been going on recently.

Odds are, if you’re a teacher–and particularly if you’re an edtech fan or writer-type or grad student–you also have valuable information and technology in your place. Here are the lessons that I learned from this experience:

  • If you rent your home and own expensive laptops, TVs, jewelry, or other stuff that would cost a lot to replace if damaged or stolen, consider renter’s insurance. It doesn’t cost a lot per year, and it’s made a huge difference for us–replacing two Mac laptops would be an issue for two teachers, otherwise! (Traveller’s has been pretty good, by the way.)
  • Get an external hard drive and, if you are not a conscientious frequent updater of it, find an automatic backup solution. I think newer versions of the Mac OS have options for this built in…I didn’t have that and wish I had.
  • Anything that’s automatically stored in more than one place is a good thing, so anything that’s automatically synced is a good thing. My address book from my laptop was synced to my iPod Touch, so I didn’t lose friends’ phone numbers and addresses (I just wish I’d filled it out more instead of relying on a file!). My calendar with appointments was, too, and so on. If you don’t have a Touch/iPhone/Blackberry, etc., there are some free online services that do similar things. My bookmarks, which include things that are very important like research articles, teaching activity sites, etc., are intact because I use Delicious.com rather than just saving them in my browser.
  • Use an e-mail service that stores your sent mail forever and doesn’t delete it (and can be searched easily, like Gmail). Someday, those sent attachments may be your only record of things like, oh, your most recent CV. (Ack.)

Anyway, without getting into the security side of things, those are just some ideas to keep you rolling/help you bounce back in this situation. I’m sure there’s a lot more out there I could have done.

Ultimately, nobody was hurt, I’m getting a new MacBook Pro, and things could have been a lot worse.