We've all run into a situation when we have to use a public computer at an internet café, library, or school to check out Facebook, check banking information or to send an email. User beware! First, you have no guarantee that the computer is protected; it might be riddled with viruses, and, second, unless you're careful the next user might learn a lot more than you'd like about your online session. Here are some steps I recommend taking before you use that public computer.
1. Don't let the web browser store all of your secrets. Every web browser on a computer keeps a history of sites you've visited and downloads the files and information from that web site for faster loading of sites you visited before. That's fine at home, but when you're using a public computer, you don't want the browser storing your history. Fortunately, modern browsers can protect your privacy. You can right-click on the Firefox icon and choose "Enter private browsing." For Firefox, pressing Ctrl+Shift+P during a normal browsing session switches to private browsing. In Chrome, the private browsing mode is called "Incognito mode." Be sure to shut down the browser when you're done. Private browsing doesn't disable the Back button so you don't want the next user backing into your Facebook session or email account.
2. Don't forget to use private browsing. There's always the possibility that you forgot to go private and you've already checked your email or bank account. Erasing your activity is simple. In Chrome or Firefox, you simply press Ctrl+Shift+Del to call up the dialog for deleting your history. The details vary, but you'll want to make sure you've selected all of the options for deletion. Chrome and Firefox lets you specify how far back to delete, so just clear out all the history just to be on the safe side.
3. Only Visit Financial Sites On Your Own Computer. It's possible that the computer you're using might be seriously compromised security-wise. For example, a stealth keylogger application could capture all passwords typed on the system. A hardware keylogger could do the same, with no possibility of detection by security software.
Your best bet is to simply refrain from sensitive transactions on a public computer. If you absolutely must log in to an important secure site on a suspect computer, here's one way to make password theft difficult: bring up a page with lots of text in the browser and copy/paste characters from that page into the password dialog. This "ransom note" style is decidedly tedious, but even a spy program that captures periodic screenshots can't snap all parts of your password.
4. Keep Your Web Site Visits to a Minimum. As you can see, there's a whole range of precautions you can take to keep any public computer session from turning into an identity theft nightmare. If you're forced to use public computers for sensitive communication, consider using ransom-note passwords and possibly a VPN. Don't engage in any sensitive communication that you could just as well do from your home or office. But even if you're doing nothing more than checking Facebook and e-mailing your dear auntie, do take the minimal precautions. Invoke the browser's privacy mode, or clear browsing data if you forgot. Doing so just takes a second and can save hours of aggravation.
Have you had to use a public computer? What steps to you use to keep safe. Drop me a line at email@example.com.