I’m a huge Starbucks junkie. About two or three times a week I’ll spin by the local Starbucks store to work in the coffee-smelling, jazz-music-playing, over-stuffed-chair-filled environment. The wonderful aspect of most coffee shops is the free Wi-Fi hotspot. However, the open wireless hotspot is a dangerous space for everyone.
Today we’ll be taking a look at Sidestep, a simple utility that aims to automatically lock down your computer whenever you’re using an open Wi-Fi network. It’s a really fantastic idea, and definitely worth reading more about!
Whenever you are surfing on an open wireless network, your data is being sent insecurely over the air. Because you cannot control who has access to the wireless network, you can’t be sure that the data you are sending isn’t being sniffed by some nefarious laptop user – possibly sitting at the table next to you.
Most websites don’t use high enough encryption that would protect you from start to finish, which gives these ‘hackers’ free reign to sniff through the data that you send to your webmail service, social network or even what you search on Google.
Now, this can be initially mitigated by the site’s use of the HTTPS protocol. This encrypts the data sent between your computer and the server – preventing people from reading it when you’re surfing on an insecure network.
Most banks use this by default, and some services allow you to enable it in the settings area of the web app. This includes popular services like Google and Gmail. However, whenever you leave the safety of these encrypted sites, your online data is open to the public.
Sidestep is a super easy to use application that allows you to instantly redirect all of your internet traffic through a proxy server.
What’s a proxy server you ask? Well it’s essentially another computer that is connected to the Internet. Instead of sending your data directly to the web via Starbuck’s router, you send your data through this server first. The best part is that you have the ability to use this proxy server as HTTPS tunnel.
One of my internet pals explained it this way: if you’re in a room full of Cookie Monsters and you need to get your stack of cookies out without them seeing them, you’d set up a big hose and send the cookies outside through the hose.
Then the Cookie-Monsters would be none the wiser that you either had cookies to begin with, let alone were sending them out of the room. Just replace cookies with passwords and Cookie-Monsters with hackers…
I’m going to go into setting up a proxy server with Sidstep. It’s pretty easy to do, once you have a proxy server of your own. In this instance, I’m going to assume that you don’t have a computer at home… instead we’ll set up the proxy server using the donation-ware Silence is Defeat service.
If you’re really into security, using a donationware service means you’ll have to trust them with your data. Instead, you could use the server hosting your website, your computer at home, or for about $0.50 / month, you can set up an Amazon EC2 Instance that can act as your proxy server.
First off, you’ll need to download the Sidestep application. It sits in your menu bar and gives you a pretty good idea of whether or not your data is being re-routed through the proxy server.
Second, head over to Silence is Defeat and sign up for an account. To get an SSH account, which is what we’ll need, you will need to donate $1 or more. It’s a good idea to give a little more if you plan to use this as your primary internet service, say, if you travel a lot. It’s a one time fee, so be as generous as you can afford!
After giving the Silence Is Defeat system a few minutes to set itself up, you’ll get a welcome e-mail. Finally, enter your login credentials into Sidestep’s Preference window. Remember to use ssh.silenceisdefeat.com as your hostname. Give the server a quick test, and you should be on your way.
Besides making it dead simple to setup a proxy server for surfing in open waters, Sidestep offers a few other little features that makes it easy to fall in love with the program. Sidestep is built into the menu bar and will change the icon when you are connected to a Proxy server.
It can also automatically connect you to the proxy server whenever you enter a unprotected network. This is a super awesome feature that takes remembering to turn on the service out of your head. Plus, everyone should be protecting their home network with a password, making it a no brainer to turn this on.
Another similar service that you can setup is called Tor (The Onion Router). It’s a freeware service that routes your internet connection between a number of computers before actually allowing it to hit the world wide web. This way, there isn’t a way to track your online activities easily – as most of the time Tor sends your data across countries and continents.
The Downsides to Sidestep
While there isn’t anything wrong with the Sidestep app, it has everything to do with Proxy Servers as a whole. There is a noticeable delay in between say, clicking a link, and the page actually loading.
It isn’t that the internet is slow, the latency is just a bit higher now that your connection is being sent through another computer (this is even more of a problem with Tor).
Sidestep and similar proxy services make it super easy to protect yourself from the evil world out there. However it is important to continue to watch your back.
While Sidestep will prevent people from doing packet sniffing, it won’t prevent people from gaining access to your data in other ways. It is important to use different passwords for each online service, and ensure that you have your firewall and other Mac security features enabled. Finally, make sure no one is standing over you when you type in your Gmail password!
Have you set up Proxy services? How else are you keeping yourself safe online? Let me know in the comments!