Now that I’ve started college, I’ve had to learn to live with not having my own computer. Like many people starting college, I’ve had to rely on computers in computer labs scattered throughout campus. While you might be able to get work done on a public computer just as easily as you could on your personal machine, there are some crucial differences, the most important of which is security. The crux of the matter is this: public computers are used by many different people everyday. This means that any data that is on the computer will be seen by a lot of different. And since you are one of the people using the computer, you just might leave data that other people might exploit. This can be anything from a copy of tomorrow’s history paper to important User IDs passwords stored in a browser’s cache. But there are a number of things (of varying complexity) that you can do to make your work on a public computer safer.
1. Always Log Off
On a public computer you’ll have to manually log in lots of different services such as instant messaging software, email accounts and social networks. All this means that you will have to input your username and password. Never opt to store the password if prompted and always log out of everything. That way, the next person accessing the computer won’t have straight access to everything you logged into. If you have to log into your school or corporate network at any time, log out of that as well. If most of your work is online (and involves multiple logins), you might want to clear the browser’s cache and cookies once you’re done. This can get tedious, but will keep you safe. I’ll deal with a way around the tedium later.
2. Never leave anything on the hard disk
You probably won’t be able to avoid storing things to the hard drive at one time or the other, whether it’s stuff you download from the net, or files that you are creating as part of your work. However you probably don’t want to leave your documents available for everyone to see. The easiest way to make sure you delete everything that you’ve created is to create a separate a folder for yourself as soon as you start work and save everything to that folder. Once you’re done, just delete the whole folder. Also please remember to check the Trash or Recycle Bin and permanently delete things from there as well.
Another solution is to not keep anything on the hard drive in the first place. If your school or company gives you network disk space, learn how to access it and try to save directly to that disk space, that way there are no local copies to worry about. If you don’t have such space at your disposal, carry around a USB Pen Drive (they are quite affordable nowadays) and save directly to that.
3. Don’t carry out money transactions
Don’t buy, sell, or in any other way give out any financial information while you’re on a public computer. You have no idea what sort of software may have been installed on the computer you are using. Losing your Facebook password is one thing, giving away your banking PIN is quite another.
4. Carry your own software
If you know that you’re going to be using public computers for a long time, it would be worthwhile to invest some time (and a little money) in getting software that you can carry around in your pocket. Many of us carry around documents on USB drives, but you can also carry around software such as Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenOffice.org, Gaim and even antivirus and encryption tools. PortableApps.com has a excellent software package of popular and useful programs which can easily be installed to and run from a USB drive. These programs have been modified to work for people on the go. For example the portable version of Firefox is designed not to leave cookies or a browsing history on the host computer (but you can still install your favorite themes and extensions).
5. Sit in a corner
Not all the technology and security software in the world is going to stop someone from looking over shoulder and seeing what you’re typing. Try to sit somewhere so that it’s hard for someone to peek over your shoulders. Some cyber-cafes also offer private cubicles for a slightly higher price. Of course, you don’t have much control over this (it depends largely on how the computer are placed) but it never hurts to be a little careful. Some libraries will let you borrow a laptop for a few hours, try to use these if possible (and go look for a cosy spot at the back of the room).