Most folks have their own computers these days. Between smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops, you probably have Internet access pretty much all the time. However, sometimes you’ll find yourself using a computer that’s not yours – perhaps you’re visiting a friend, using public resources at the library, or your work requires you to log into different systems all day.
Public WiFi is dangerous no matter what computer you’re on, but foreign machines demand even greater caution. Whenever you have to use a computer that’s open to the public, make sure you follow these guidelines to ensure your privacy and safety.
Don’t Save Login Information
Many websites have a convenient checkbox that allows you to stay signed in even after closing your browser. While this makes life easier for personal surfing, saving personal info in your browser is a bad idea, and you never want to do it on a computer that someone else could log on to.
Additionally, be sure to sign out once you’re done working on a site that requires a login. Don’t assume that just because you close the browser window that your session won’t be preserved for the next person that comes along. Even if you don’t save your password, leaving your email around for others to peruse could lead to spam or other annoyances.
If you accidentally tell the browser to keep your info, you’ll need to clear your cookies so it forgets. Which leads us to…
Clear the Browser History
What you do online says a lot about you, and when using a public computer you don’t want to leave traces around for others to discover. When you’re finished working, be sure to completely clean the history. You should go nuclear and clear every setting that the browser lets you delete – don’t stop at just the history list, but get rid of the browser cookies, cache, and filled form data too. This resets all login info you might have accidentally saved and ensures someone won’t see your email when they type its first few letters into a text box.
An alternative to deleting the history (and probably a more simple method) is to use Incognito mode. Every modern browser has one, and there’s a variety of uses for going incognito – aside from staying private, you can also log in to a website with two different accounts or see how pages look to the general public. Nothing you do in private browsing is saved, but if it makes you feel better you can still delete cookies to be on the safe side.
Be Mindful of What You’re Doing
This one isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but rather a general principle. When using a computer you haven’t customized to you liking, there’s no way to be sure it hasn’t been tampered with. Because of this, you’ll need to be vigilant about your activities on the machine. You probably shouldn’t log into anything that deals with finance, such as your bank or PayPal. Avoid typing in any passwords if you can get along without doing so.
Programs that record every character you type are called keyloggers; while they can be defeated, you likely won’t have the time or authority to install protective measures on a random computer, so be vary of potential security breaches. You can use the on-screen keyboard for a little extra protection, but if it’s sensitive, it can probably wait until you get home.
Consider Alternate Booting
Since most computers run Windows, in all likelihood the computer at your library or school will be one of them. Luckily, just like you can dual-boot, it’s simple to boot into another operating system (such as Linux) on any computer that that doesn’t have a locked BIOS (which isn’t likely).
Danny has showed you how to carry around Ubuntu wherever you go, which is a great tool if you frequently use unfamiliar machines. Using your own personalized OS means you’ll be invulnerable to any malware that may be on the main Windows installation. However, there’s still no guarantee that the public Internet is secure, so while using Linux on a flash drive is a great idea and better than using the host OS, it isn’t a 100% safe solution.
Make sure that you’ve set up your USB drive properly when you get started with Linux so you don’t run into any problems.
The above technical advice is all important, but don’t abandon common sense. While using a shared computer, it’s probable there will be others around you. Be sure you don’t walk away from the machine and leave it unattended when you’re working, and be wary of those who might be looking over your shoulder.
Make sure you know what a document or website contains before you open it; you don’t want to show a big document with your financial info or unintentionally open an inappropriate website for all around you to see. For links, check them with a tool like VariablySFW first, which lets you peek at possibly not safe for work (NSFW) websites before you fully load them.
Above all, remember that there’s really no way to know how safe a public computer is. It could be totally fine, or it could be filled with nasty adware and have a keylogger tracking your every move. Knowing the security risks and applying these tips will reduce your chance of having an issue with a computer that isn’t yours.
The flipside is true, too: you have a responsibility to keep your computer free of infection, so make sure you’re using strong, memorable passwords and know the steps to take when clearing malware.
What are your safety tips for browsing on public computers? Have you ever run into problems using a shared computer? Drop a line in the comments below!