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Airplane Wi-Fi is no safer than that at your local coffee shop

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Q: Is the Wi-Fi that you pay for on airplanes safe to use?

When you’re considering the use of any public Wi-Fi service, two primary concerns are how secure the connection is and what limitations are imposed.

In-flight Wi-Fi has the same security concerns as a typical public connection that you’ll find at coffee shops and hotels: If everyone uses the same password or there’s no password required, there’s nothing separating users from each other.

Airline Internet service providers also use more controls on the connection so they can control what you can and can’t do.

Things like streaming video or using VOIP services like Skype are blocked to limit data usage because the overall shared bandwidth is pretty limited.

Without getting too deep into the technical aspects of the connection, it’s important to understand that encryption of your data as it flies over the wireless network is what keeps your personal information private.

If you don’t see https: at the beginning of the web address, then anything you type is going over the wireless network in plain text, which potentially can be viewable by others.

Even when you do see https:, because of the way that providers like GoGo Wireless manage the network, your information may not be as secure as you might think, as detailed in this ARS Techniica article or from this USA Today reporter.

Another issue that I’ve seen just about any time that I’ve connected to public Wi-Fi is lots of other computers that are sharing folders with anyone else on the network.

They’re usually default share folders that probably don’t contain anything of value since the user probably doesn’t even know that it exists, but I’ve seen folders that were clearly created to share files with coworkers.

If you work in groups on the road and share things with each other, those shared folders will suddenly become available to anyone else on public Wi-Fi if you haven’t properly secured them.

The best way to stay safe on any network that you don’t completely control is through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

A VPN creates a private network within a public network so everything that you type is securely protected from anyone else on the same network.

There are a large number of free and pay options available that are pretty easy to setup and use.

Free VPN programs typically come in two flavors: free — but ad supported — and free but limited in use.

Two of the offerings that I like for non-technical users include CyberGhost and Private Tunnel.

CyberGhost’s free option requires you to view an ad for at least 17 seconds and shows ads every two hours with a three-hour limit per session.  You can pay for an ad-free unrestricted account that’s much faster for $7 a month if you travel often.

If you’re not on the road as often, checkout Private Tunnel’s pay-as-you-go offering. They’ll provide the first 500MBs for free so you can try it out and then you pre-pay for data packages that never expire, so you don’t have to commit to a monthly plan.

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