5 Ways to Make Sure Public Computers You Use Are Safe

Ben Stegner 03-03-2015

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 3 Dangers Of Logging On To Public Wi-Fi You've heard that you shouldn't open PayPal, your bank account and possibly even your email while using public WiFi. But what are the actual risks? Read More 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 Why You Should Use Browsers for Browsing, Not Saving Information Read More , 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 What Everybody Ought to Know About Dealing With Email Spam It might be next to impossible to stop spam completely, but it's certainly possible to reduce its flow to a trickle. We outline some of the different measures you can take. Read More .

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 How to Manually & Automatically Clear Your Browser History The websites you visit leave tracks on your computer. We show you how to delete your browsing history in Firefox, Chrome, Edge, and Internet Explorer. Read More . 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 What Is a Website Cookie? How Cookies Affect Your Online Privacy You've heard of internet cookies, but what exactly are they? What do they have to do with your privacy? Here's what you need to know. Read More , 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 Not Just for Porn: Other Uses For Private Browsing Private-browsing mode has many other names, including "incognito mode" in Chrome and "InPrivate Browsing" in Internet Explorer. Some people refer to private-browsing mode as "porn mode", but it isn't just for porn addicts. It can... Read More – 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 Make Your Computer Truly Personal With These Top Customization Tools What does it mean to customize your computer? Does it mean to have the coolest looking desktop? Well, that’s part of it, but not completely. First off, you want your desktop to be functional. Not... Read More , 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 Don't Fall Victim to Keyloggers: Use These Important Anti-Keylogger Tools In cases of online identity theft, keyloggers play one of the most important roles in the actual act of stealing. If you’ve ever had an online account stolen from you - whether it was for... Read More , 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 Learn To Navigate Windows Without A Mouse, Keyboard Or Screen You just spent hours labouring over an important document when your keyboard dies on you. Would you know how to save your work, exit programs, and shut down your computer? We'll show you. Read More 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 8 In 10 Desktop Computers Runs Windows And So Should You Getting a new computer? One devil urges you to buy a Mac or Chromebook, while the other insists you try Linux. And here's me explaining why you should stick with a Windows device. Read More , in all likelihood the computer at your library or school will be one of them. Luckily, just like you can dual-boot Tired Of Windows 8? How To Dual Boot Windows & Ubuntu If you discover that Windows 8 isn't quite your cup of tea, and you have no feasible path to downgrade, it may be a good idea to dual boot with Linux to have an alternative... Read More , 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 Keep A Portable Ubuntu Installation With You Wherever You Go There's so much you can do with an Ubuntu installation. But what if you could take that same Ubuntu installation and make it portable so you can have it with you wherever you are? Read More , 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 Running Linux From a USB Drive: Are You Doing It Right? Did you know that can do a full install of Linux on a USB drive? Here's how to create a Linux USB PC in your pocket! Read More when you get started with Linux so you don’t run into any problems.


Be Practical

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 VariablySFW: Peek NSFW Websites Before Opening Them Read More 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 3 Essential Steps To Get Rid Of Chrome Hijackers In Minutes Have you ever opened your browser of choice and been greeted with a bizarre-looking start page or an unsightly toolbar glued to the top of the page? Restore your browser to tip-top shape. Read More 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 Why You Have a Responsibility to Keep Your Hardware Secure & Malware Free Keeping your computer clean isn't just smart: it's your civic duty. A malware-ridden computer doesn't just slow you down, it infects your friends' and family's computers, putting them at risk. Read More , so make sure you’re using strong, memorable passwords 6 Tips For Creating An Unbreakable Password That You Can Remember If your passwords are not unique and unbreakable, you might as well open the front door and invite the robbers in for lunch. Read More and know the steps to take when clearing malware 10 Steps To Take When You Discover Malware On Your Computer We would like to think that the Internet is a safe place to spend our time (cough), but we all know there are risks around every corner. Email, social media, malicious websites that have worked... Read More .

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!

Marco Prati /

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  1. Jack White
    March 6, 2015 at 11:51 pm

    Portable apps (Tor, libre office browsers etc)

  2. NOYB
    March 5, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    " 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."

    I want to add to that, use discretion when children are around.

    • Ben S
      March 9, 2015 at 5:47 pm

      Excellent point. You never know what's going to pop up when young eyes are around.

  3. Victor
    March 5, 2015 at 7:14 am

    Simply doing everything in incognito really helps. No information gets recorded!

  4. Shaila
    March 4, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Most libraries install DeepFreeze in order to help users and maintain the computers. It wipes recent information added to the computer every time it is restarted. So, when our patrons forget to clear their history, delete sensitive documents, or accidentally save their passwords, this program gets deletes it all making the public computers much safer.

    That said, these are all good tips.

    • Ben S
      March 9, 2015 at 5:46 pm

      That's interesting and I'm glad you were here to share that! It's wise to reset the system each time someone is done working.

  5. Johann
    March 3, 2015 at 9:15 pm

    Turning on incognito/private browsing/porn mode is a quick way to make sure no cookies, log on details etc. are stored.

    • Ben S
      March 9, 2015 at 5:46 pm

      I made sure to give it a mention! Clearing everything after works fine, but Incognito takes care of it for you. It's a great tool for public browsing.