Security at Starbucks or any other hotspot?

What type of security am I getting at Starbuckies, or at any other hotspot for that matter?  
I constantly go to Starbucks to enjoy a couple of hours with my favorite drink, but I always wonder why the person accross the room is always so into his laptop, is he/she spying on me or someone within the store?  

Is it possible?  If so, how can I protect myself from someone spying on me?
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Jakob DigranesSenior ConsultantCommented:
Yup ... As both other parties mentioned - Public networks is --- public. Most likely, many of the hotspots have no security - perhaps a login, but maybe no encryption. And I totally understand. The aim with hotspots at coffee shops and likes is to provide internet access to customers, and to keep it simple, easy and with as little maintenance as possible.

Within the range of laptops and mobile phones you have 802.11a/b/g, 802.11a/b/g/n, 802.11b/g and still 802.11b wireless (Yes, the 802.11b is old - but if you have a thinkpad - they just keep on running :-) )
- So they could not remove 802.11b. I know this has nothing to do with the security, but to get the understanding.

With that in mind - you have security. There's a vast variety of OS out there, and some still support only WPA and not WPA2 - and some only support WEP (XP pre SP2, some older MACs and Linux + + )
- So if they chose WPA or WPA2 they could have several customers not being able to log in. And if they chose WEP - it just wasted time since WEP is broken within minutes.

So most of them keep it clean and run open wireless, maybe with login with uname/pword - but no encryption.

But all this varies from hotspot to hotspot. But don't rely on anyone else to maintain security.

Then it comes to securing yourself.
- True, a firewall doesn't stop anyone from sniffing airborne packets. You need to encrypt traffic on your own (will get back to that). But a firewall WILL protect your computer from those on the same network as you, that is everyone else at the hotspot. Many hot spots may have client isolation so Wireless clients won't be able to see each other, but yet again - do not rely on others to keep you safe

- Keep Windows (or any other OS) and all other network connected software updated. This is many of the backdoors that people with enough knowledge will use to gain access to your computer

- if you need have traffic encrypted, use VPN tunnels - best to use one at work/school or create your own, or else use Hamachi, Tor Project or other proxy'ing web or software that keeps your traffice encrypted/hidden.

At the end - before anyone else comment this: It can be unsafe using public WiFis, but then again - how many poeple would really be interesting in what YOU are doing ??
 (but then again - one is ... one too many)

So keep on browsing - just think twice what you're browsing and what network services you're using (mail, ftp ++)
If you are that paranoid about people spying on you then don't use public hotspots!

Alternatively, install a decent firewall on your laptop.  This link has a list of the some of the better free firewalls.
käµfm³d 👽Commented:
Sounds like someone might be a little paranoid  ;)

But seriously, in the age of the mobile office, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. etc...   Is it really that peculiar to see people deeply engaged in their laptops? Do you have the same concerns when someone is intently staring at a newspaper?

To answer you question, yes it is possible. Of course it depends on what kind of security Starbucks uses on their routers/access points (WEP, WPA, etc.). It is possible for someone to broadcast a network id that would appear to be Starbucks, requires you to login (which I assume Starbuck's wifi access does) and then captures your uname and password, thus giving them access to your Starbucks login to use elsewhere.

I don't know how rampant this is, and please don't take this as the ultimate and final word on the issue. I would say to make sure you ask the counter ppl the name of the Starbucks network (to ensure you connect to the right network) and also confirm what kind of network protection the use. I know the WEP is easily crackable, and I believe the early forms of WPA are possible as well. I highly doubt a money-whore like Starbucks would be using a WEP protected router, though :)
käµfm³d 👽Commented:

A firewall does nothing for pulling packets out of the air :)
It's a lot easier to presume SOMEONE will try to snoop on your laptop's traffic. A decent software firewall like the one that comes with a lot of Trend Micro products is a good start.
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