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Don’t Access Private Information from Public Computers

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Our home recently lost Internet access because our Verizon FiOS cable modem/router died (after only a couple months!) and my wife sauntered over to the library next door to prepare her taxes while I was at class Monday night. As you can imagine, when she told me this, after she’d prepared her taxes, I got nervous that she had put all that sensitive information through one of the publicly accessible computers at the library. Fortunately I was wrong, she was merely using her own computer connected to their network and thus safe in this regard.

I segregate the world of “personal/private information” into sensitive and routine information. Sensitive information covers all financial and personally identifying information such as bank and brokerage accounts, business assets, and anything account that would cause considerably harm if compromised. Routine information covers everything else including email. Loss of a routine information account wouldn’t cause too much harm (I’d be furious though) and wouldn’t compromise sensitive accounts. This means that sensitive and routine accounts never share the same password, this is a crucial step.

Why do I do this? Publicly accessible computers, such as terminals at libraries and hotels, aren’t within your control and so you never know what’s been done to them. At worst, they have keyloggers installed, either software or hardware, that log your every keystroke. Those keystrokes can be replayed back at a later time for someone to gain access to your accounts.

Also, I can’t trust myself to clear the cache, cookies, and other information every single time (on Firefox, it’s easy, go to Tools -> Clear Private Data or hit CTRL-SHIFT-DEL). What if I’m lax and click “Remember Me?” and leave myself logged in? What if I tell Firefox to save the password out of habit? What if I simply don’t log out and the next person on gets access to my information? Security breaches aren’t always the cause of a malicious act, sometimes they’re caused by user error or mistake meeting an ethically-gray opportunist.

Chances of theft are low. I recognize that the chances of someone installing a keylogger on a hotel computer or the chances of me leaving myself logged in and the next person being an ethically-gray opportunist is slim, but I see it as not being worth it. 99.99% of the time, I won’t ever need to log into a brokerage or bank account at the hotel so why bother?

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8 Responses to “Don’t Access Private Information from Public Computers”

  1. planner says:

    Most ISPs have in their contracts the right to monitor information going through them. Companies that share connections, maybe some libraries, have the same type of policies. Even if a thief doesn’t get your info there could be more people seeing it than you’d like.

    Also, our Verizon FiOS modem/router had problems the first week we had FiOS. They sent another in the mail that arrived 2 days later. I also had some problems with the wiring. When they sent a tech out to fix the wiring he complained that Verizon shouldn’t have sent a modem without going through the field techs (union contract). He also complained that the replacement they sent me was an older, less reliable model (cheap Verizon). At least our FiOS has only been down two times this week, that’s an improvement for us.

  2. Jesse says:

    I have to agree, you never know exactly WHAT has been installed on a public computer. Its as easy as going to downloads.com to get a keystroke logger. Scary.

  3. Todd says:

    My wife works at a public library, in fact, a pretty cool one. BUT, you never want to underestimate the destructive desire or ability of some people using library (or other public) computers. The lengths people will go to just to acquire more online time is astounding. As my wife playfully reminds our family, “Make good choices !

  4. Posco says:

    I’ve got a pretty good enforcement system for this policy: I use Password Safe to manage (and pseudo-randomly generate) my passwords for critical accounts such as banks and credit cards… The trick: I only have it installed at home, which means I can’t login to those sites unless I’m at home. Well, I could ssh into my home computer and retrieve the password database, but that’s more trouble than it’s worth.

    I still would not trust public wired-Ethernet connections with critical personal information, not to mention public wireless access points.

  5. john says:

    Unfortunately, unless she used encryption, all of the information she entered was still easily available to anyone sniffing that network. To avoid this, you need to have some kind of encrypted connection to a secure network, and surf from there. Commonly, it is a VPN connection to your home network. Of course, in this case that wouldn’t have worked for you. There are some companies that will be the secure network for you, for a small fee. On the other hand you have to trust that they won’t do nasty things with your data.

  6. Kathy says:

    I am the Director of a public library. All of our public computers are on a secure network and are set up to totally refresh and reboot after each use. This means all files and documents other than the program files are wiped out, all caches and browsing history cleared, etc. We use a computer access management system that requires that you log in with a library card and allows a defined session length. The refreshing and rebooting process takes place after each session or after the computer has been unused for a few minutes. The only risk would be if you were in the midst of a session, walked away from the computer, and someone else slipped in and managed to capture your information. We also check for viruses, spyware, etc. using very powerful systems. We are probably more secure than many home computers!

    Librarians take great pride in protecting the privacy of our patrons, and this extends to their online privacy! I woudn’t vouch for coffee shops, internet cafes, etc though!

  7. bloodbath says:

    You wife’s action could still be in jeopardy because information could still be gathered at the network controller even though she’s using her own computer

  8. Floyd says:

    I would like to know what can I do to surf the web in total privacy from this library computer.(thanks)


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