Public Wi-Fi Safety: Protect Yourself at Starbucks and Other Hotspots

Last Updated Jul 1, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Starting today, Starbucks is offering free Wi-Fi to all customers -- no registration, debit cards, time restrictions, or other shenanigans required. Just click to sign in and you're off to the Internet races.

But is it safe? Like all public Wi-Fi hotspots, the ones served up by Starbucks carry some risks. To protect your PC and its data, you need to tweak some settings and perhaps use a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

It may sound a little complicated, but Lifehacker explains everything you need to know about staying safe on public Wi-Fi networks -- including using Windows' own automated settings:

When you first connect to any given network on Windows, you'll be asked whether you're connecting to a network at your home, work, or if it's public. Each of these choices will flip the switch on a preset list of settings. The public setting, naturally, will give you the most security. You can customize what each of the presets entails by opening your Control Panel and navigating to Network and Sharing Center -> Advanced Sharing Settings. From there, you can turn network discovery, file sharing, public folder sharing, media streaming, and other options on or off for the different profiles.
The author also delves into VPN options, firewall settings, and disabling Wi-Fi when you're not using it -- all for both Windows and Mac users. It's a fine overview of what you need to know, and do, before plopping down at a table.

We've covered this kind of thing before (see below), but today seemed like a particularly good day for a refresher. Of course, I don't drink coffee anymore, so Starbucks isn't really on my radar. Panera Bread, on the other hand...

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.