One of the best forms of protection is a VPN, a virtual private network that effectively hides your system from prying hacker eyes. Most VPN utilities cost at least a few bucks, but Hotspot Shield is free.
Available for Windows and Mac OS, Hotspot Shield creates a secure connection between your PC and the company's servers, then routes your Internet traffic through that connection so it stays private and hidden. (Interestingly, this method also enables users outside the U.S. to access U.S.-only sites and content, so it's a nice tool to have when traveling abroad.)
In my quick and informal tests, Hotspot Shield worked as advertised, creating the VPN in just a few seconds and then getting out of the way while I browsed, checked e-mail, etc.
The only caveat is that during installation, the program tries to install toolbars and other junk you definitely don't want -- so clear all the checkboxes as you proceed through the installation screens.
Other than that, Hotspot Shield is a great solution for users who want to stay safe at public hotspots, but don't want to pay for the privilege.
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