Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Staying safe over the Summer break

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about several things, including how to practice safe online behaviour when you aren’t at home. Read on for my notes, or pull the podcast to find out if I stuck to them!


Q: To our main story – how to stay in touch when you go away on your holidays. First question – do you really want to? I thought a holiday was to get away from it all!

A: And wouldn’t that be great! But for those of us who feel the need to do such basic things as email, online banking, maybe even sharing our holiday snaps with our friends – while we are away, there are some obvious problems. How do you hook up to the Net away from home?

Q: What about Internet cafés?

A: Yes, you get them in lots of places these days, especially tourist spots. And if you have a functional web mail system – something which Xtra users can’t take for granted, by the way, you can log on to your email through a web page and check it on a computer in an Internet café.

Q: So where’s the difficulty in that?

A: The main problem is that you don’t know how secure those computers are. There could be all kinds of nasty software copying your password and sending it to Latvia. Now if its just an email password, some people might find that alarming enough and other might not care, but what if you wanted to check your bank balance or pay someone on TradeMe?

Q: You’d risk your online banking password?

A: Exactly. This is a real risk. It really does happen. A few years ago there was a bunch of New Zealanders on a posting overseas who all had their online banking passwords compromised because the only PC that was available for them to use had some nasty piece of spyware on it.

Q: So what should you do if you just have to use a password in an Internet café?

A: First of all, shop around if there are several cafés – look for one with an anti spyware program obviously installed on the computers, you’d see an icon on the desktop with the word Spy in it. That’s at least evidence that the proprietor takes your security seriously. And, for online banking you really must be using two factor authentication – we’ve talked about this before, it’s a separate text message password to pay funds, or a little bingo card or machine you have with you, anything that a password thief wouldn’t have. Or you need a very understanding bank that has made categorical statements about covering you for fraud in cyber cafés, like Westpac came out and did this year.

Then, and this is your last line of defence, always do this when entering your password into a machine you don’t control, it’s a long way from perfect but it helps a lot: enter your password a bit at a time and use mouse clicks to move the cursor around in the middle so it can’t easily be reconstructed. So, if your password was ABCDEFG – and heaven, knows it shouldn’t be, it should be something far harder to guess – you might type EF, then click back at the beginning and type ABCD, then click at the end and type G, then hit enter. Most spyware programs – that’s password-stealing programs – won’t manage to work out what you did with the mouse. But a clever piece of spyware could, so this isn’t foolproof. Don’t rely on it, just use it anyway on machines you aren’t sure about.

Q: You say that’s not safe – what can you do to be safer?

A: The best thing to do is carry your own laptop and know how to keep it clean. Most cyber cafés will let you plug in a laptop, or they’ll have wireless laptop access, which most modern laptops can use. That’s much safer, provided you keep your machine clean by following all the recommended advice. I’ve put some of it in the links for today.

Q: So the only safe way is to take your own computer?

A: Pretty much. Practice safe computing, it’s much more of a risk in the holiday period! Have a great break everyone, and remember to be careful out there! Spend some time with your family, or on the beach, or at the barbecue. Remember, the Internet will still be there when you get back!


As always, discuss this at

Netsafe, the Internet Safety Group – full of great advice about keeping you and your computer safe this holiday.

posted by colin at 11:50 am  

1 Comment

  1. I love your site and intend to visit often. Thanks

    Comment by Techie — 26 March 2008 @ 1:04 pm

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