Vacation is a time for visiting friends and family, going abroad, eating ice-cream, gardening – whatever helps you regroup and recharge. Computer security is probably the last thing on your mind, even if you’ve taken your laptop home with you to keep tabs on what’s going on at the office.
But as my colleague Christian pointed out in this article last year, summer often brings some serious security issues. And I’ve got recent further proof of this: just a few weeks ago I was attending our annual security conference at a very classy hotel in Cyprus. Everything seemed perfect – until we connected to the hotel Wi-Fi.
If you’ve ever taken your laptop with you on business or vacation, you’ll know the drill. When you want to connect to the Internet via a hotel network, you get redirected to a site controlled by the hotel’s router. You need to either enter a code provided by the hotel, or your credit card details – all on a site which may or may not be secure.
In Cyprus, we found out that the page you get redirected to when you try and access the Internet was infected with Gumblar. The hotel was lucky to have 30+ security experts staying there – but if we hadn’t been holding our conference there, the site could have stayed infected for quite a while!
Logging on via insecure connections isn’t the only seasonal security issue. People’s computer and online habits change when they’re on holiday – they tend to use their computers less, and in short bursts, just to get the information they need. For instance, you’ll often see people logging on for ten minutes to quickly check email, download maps or details about the places they’re planning to visit, etc.
If you’re quickly checking for some information that you need via GPRS or a slow Wi-Fi connection, you’re probably not going to bother updating your antivirus or installing security patches. You might rationalize your decision (if you even think about it) by telling yourself that you don’t go to dodgy sites which are likely to be hosting malware. But our experience in Cyprus really highlights the fact that malware is everywhere.
Ignoring security patches and antivirus updates while you’re on vacation means that if you log on, you are putting yourself at risk. And when you get back to work after two, three, or even four weeks off, if you haven’t been using your computer, the very first thing you should do is make sure that it’s fully patched, and security software up to date. Of course you want to get to all the funny YouTube links etc. that your colleagues sent while you were away – but update before you start checking your mail or clicking through links and attachments.
Insecure networks, infected sites, and vulnerable software and systems are all technical aspects of IT security. But apart from all the technical stuff, lots of people are giving out far too much information on Facebook, Twitter, and even in their Out Of Office replies. Posting that you’re off to some exotic resort for two weeks is almost an open invitation to burglars and other criminals to come and rifle your property while you’re gone…
Simple tips on how to have a more secure vacation
Before you go
While you’re away
When you get back
Free WiFi Internet connections are increasingly popular and can be found in hotels, cafes and airports around the world. But it's not always as good as it seems - although I wouldn't say TANSTAAFL, some of today's 'free lunches' come with a serious downside.
What makes me say this? Well, earlier today I was catching a connecting flight at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. While scanning for available WiFi networks I got the following list:
The KPN and Schiphol-Group networks are legitimate but what about the other two?
One thing you might notice is that they're AD-Hoc type networks. This means that they're not really WiFi access points but other computers which have been deliberately named 'Free Public WiFi' and 'US Airways Free WiFi' to tempt users into connecting.
Joining such a network can have a number of unpleasant consequences. If the attacker has Internet access himself, s/he can allow you to get online and then sniff the traffic, potentially getting hold of your passwords and other personal data. And if the attacker doesn't have Internet access, s/he could try to directly hack your computer by using various network-level exploits.
It's easy to spot rogue WiFi links - you just need to look for the following signs:
- an enticing name like 'Free Wifi' or 'Free Internet'
- an AD-Hoc type connection, rather than an access point
To stay safe:
- use a VPN link over any public WiFi internet access link to dial back home and access the internet using a secure proxy over the VPN link
- use only encrypted IMAP e-mail connections to read mail, TLS or SSL
- beware of fake certificates
- use a firewall and IPS or a combined security solution such as KIS7