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Connectivity is becoming an added "perk" in some housing situations. Make sure you know the risks when someone else provides your internet connection.

I'm a cable internet user now, but I'm moving into a new apartment where the landlord provides free wireless internet to me and two other tenants in the house. I just have to supply a wireless adapter/card for my PC. How do I take advantage of my new landlord's offer and at the same time protect my personal electronic information from the other tenants--and my landlord--when I cannot control the router?

I almost said, "just turn on your firewall and you'll be fine".

And then it dawned on me that no, you wouldn't be fine. Far from it, in fact. And that's the reason I'm touching on this scenario again, even though we've really discussed this exact problem a couple of times before, albeit with slight differences.

Whoever provides your internet access, be it an open WiFi hotspot, a hotel, your place of employment and even your ISP, can monitor your usage and might allow others on the network to sniff your traffic as well. It doesn't matter whether the connection is wired or wireless.

Now, in general, we trust our ISP, and perhaps our employer, but as we've discussed in earlier articles, it's a bad idea to trust hotels and open WiFi hotspots. Both are quite easily abused either by the administrator of the network, or by those willing to sit quietly in a hotel room or corner of the cafe and capture the internet traffic passing by. Doing so they can catch the accounts, passwords, and more, from users who haven't sufficiently protected themselves.

"Whoever provides your internet access ... can monitor your usage and might allow others on the network to sniff your traffic as well."

As generous as your landlord's offer is, it falls into exactly the same boat:

  • Your landlord is your ISP. If he's technically knowledgeable enough he could easily watch all the traffic on the network that he's providing.

  • Your neighbors (or anyone in range of the wireless network) could also easily watch all the traffic that you send wirelessly.

If this sounds familiar it's because it is: it's exactly the same risk that you run when using an internet cafe.

And as such, exactly the same solutions apply:

  • Secure connections - any connection that begins with https instead of http is an encrypted connection. So while your landlord or neighbors might see which sites you are visiting, the data actually sent to or displayed from the web site on an https connection is encrypted. Using an https connection to a service like GMail is one way to secure your email from snooping.

  • Anonymous Web Surfing - using services like Anonymizer, Tor or other services like them snoopers might be able to tell that you're using the service but they cannot tell where you're surfing; it's all encrypted.

  • Encrypted Email - there are several ways to send encrypted email. People watching will be able to see who you're emailing, but your message will be encrypted and hidden. Encrypted email is not easy for most people to set up, but it can be done. Also sending encrypted email does not encrypt your email account login information, which is typically sent in the clear.

  • VPN Services - There are services available that will allow you to set up a VPN or "Virtual Private Network" connection to their services which then connect you to the internet. These are typically meant for people who travel and use WiFi hotspots a lot.

Given that you'll be connecting this way almost exclusively in your new residence, I'd recommend a VPN as the easiest solution that will essentially take care of protecting everything you do from your landlord and/or neighbors.

While I've no direct experience with them, HotSpot VPN and WiTopia are two such providers. (You can also read one comparison between the two here on Michael Horowitz's blog.)

On the other hand, getting your own internet connection independent of your landlord might also be worth at least a quick look and cost comparison.

Article C3326 - March 20, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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7 Comments
Kevin Pacheco
March 22, 2008 2:35 AM

Aside from Leo's points, this rings lots of alarm bells for me.

I don't know where the person asking the question lives, but I did notice a mention of "house" (as opposed to an apartment building) and a total of three tenants, including himself.

I live in southern Brooklyn where unscrupulous practices by landlords are sadly not uncommon. I can easily envision the inquirer's (apparently small-time) landlord sharing a residential broadband with multiple households without permission of the underlying ISP, which is surely a violation of the ISP's terms of use. (After all, the ISP wants to sell broadband to individual households, so they stand to lose revenue in a situation like this.)

There are three other problems here:

First, if the underlying ISP is a cable provider, even people who connect directly to the cable network can suffer slowdowns during peak hours In fact, this can also happen with DSL, even though DSL connections are supposedly not shared with neighbors. (Google [brooklyn verizon dsl peak slowdowns] for an proof of this). Now you are talking about sharing a single connection which is subject to a "double slowdown" if the other tenants are hitting the Wi-Fi connection hard.

The second problem is that, should anything go wrong with the connection, if it should go down completely, let's say, you have additional layers of complication in getting the problem solved. You can't call the underlying ISP directly, and the landlord might have better things to do than deal with Internet connectivity problems. Sure, if the landlord lives in the house and uses the connection himself, it's in his best interest to get such problems solved, but what if he's out of town or something when this happens?

Finally, there is the recently-reported case of Roderick Vosburgh, whose home was raided last year in an FBI sting involving posted hyperlinks that purported to be illegal videos of minors having sex. Vosburgh was found guily of attempting to download child pornography and faces three to four years in prison. A CNET article about this case mentions the following:

QUOTE:

The defendant in [another similar] case, Travis Carter, suggested that any of the neighbors could be using his wireless network. (The public defender's office even sent out an investigator who confirmed that dozens of homes were within Wi-Fi range.)

But the magistrate judge ruled that even the possibilities of spoofing or other users of an open Wi-Fi connection "would not have negated a substantial basis for concluding that there was probable cause to believe that evidence of child pornography would be found on the premises to be searched." Translated, that means the search warrant was valid.

END QUOTE

So, it I were you, I would absolutely, positively get my own Internet connection and steer clear of the Wi-Fi deal completely.

bigjohnny
March 23, 2008 5:40 PM

I try to use WiFi as little as possible and never use my credit card info online if I can avoid it. If you need reason to, check out some clips from a TV show that demonstrates how unscrupulous people can watch your WiFi and steal your credit card info. I can't post links here, so, search youtube for wifi and real hustle.

Eric Goodman
May 1, 2008 5:39 AM

I am the "landlord" (NOT the one in the article above). I don't know how to look at my "tenant's" data, but how do I protect myself from my tenant and for that matter someone in another apartment or someone just driving by the apartment building? According to my tenant, there are 8 different networks registering on his laptop (including mine).

Because my tenant shares the cost of the connection with me, I feel I have to protect the both of us from "problems."

I have a Linksys Wireless-G 2.4 MHz Broadband Router. I am wired directly to the router and my tenant uses the wireless connection. The router itself has a password on it and you need to enter an encryption key to gain access to the network to which my router is attached. Thanks, ERIC

Leo
May 5, 2008 11:49 AM

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Excellent question, and good on you for wanting to do things
right. Here's a new article that describes what I'd do:
http://ask-leo.com/how_do_i_protect_users_on_my_network_from_each_other.html

Thanks,

Leo


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kannie
November 1, 2009 4:25 PM

so does google chrome's stealth mode count as anonymous web surfing?

Matt
May 7, 2010 11:38 PM

In response to Kannie's comment. Google Chrome's "incognito" mode does not count as anonymous web surfing. The mode only does not store any information on your computer about the sites you've visited. All the sites you visit still know your IP and the data is by no means encrypted. TOR works pretty good, but to use it in Chrome, you need to follow these instructions [broken link removed]

Patrick Doyle
November 5, 2010 12:17 AM

I am also using my landlords free unlimited internet in the residence. I set up a vpn and a paid proxy only to discover that although he coulod not see what I was doing he still could monitor my bandwidth usage. After watching steaming movies on a LEGAL site I was informed I am now only to browse and send emails. So to me the paid VPN and the paid Proxy was useless. Buy the way my downloads for the streams was 2.8 gig = two hd movies. So no more movies and no more skype. Thanks VPN

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