Help guide: Secure and optimise your PC for mobile broadband

Security is a concern for all internet users, everyone has heard the horror stories of identity theft and stolen credit card spending sprees. Mobile broadband is no exception and we've had plenty of queries on the forum from people concerned about their safety when using a dongle, so this week we're going to have a look at some of the ways you can browse safely, plus some tips for optimising your computer to get the most from your data allowance.

How safe is mobile broadband?

Mobile broadband is as safe as home broadband. Signals can be intercepted but it's not an easy thing to do, and not something you should worry about unless you've somehow managed to catch the attention of an intelligence agency. And if that was the case the authorities would be far more likely to simply contact your provider for a record of the browsing history. It's perfectly safe to use mobile broadband for credit card payments and the like, though as always the weakest link is your computer, which can be compromised by viruses and other security threats. But there are some easy ways to ensure your system is protected.

  • Install an anti-virus program

Lots of viruses try to steal bank details, credit cards and passwords so an AV tool is absolutely essential, whether you use mobile broadband or not. This doesn't have to cost anything, there are several free AV programs that do the job just as well as Norton or McAfee. Microsoft's own Security Essentials offers comprehensive protection against malicious software, it's hassle-free and integrates perfectly with Windows. SE been getting positive reviews in AV tests, but of you don't want to trust your security to MS try AVG, Avira or Avast, all of which offer anti-virus protection for nothing.

  • Use a VPN

If you're really paranoid about your comms being intercepted then one answer is to use a Virtual Private Network. With a VPN all your activity is routed through a secure connection to and from a proxy server, so even your ISP can't see what you're doing. Though it might be overkill on home or mobile broadband, a VPN is essential if you regularly make use of public Wi-Fi networks. Even checking your email with a plain public Wi-Fi connection is dodgy - online shopping is definitely out of the question. The downside is that a VPN will set you back a monthly fee, you should also read up on the services first to ensure they're operated by a reputable outfit because you'll be sending all your data through their servers.

  • Store your passwords in a safe

Not a bank vault, a software safe. These keep your passwords locked away behind a single master passphrase. There are two big advantages: complex, secure passwords don't need to be memorised and you can have web site logins filled in automatically without worrying about someone else getting access by stealing your laptop or simply peering over your shoulder. There are lots of password tools out there but the best is open source tool KeePass. It's very flexible, there are loads of extensions and a version is available for almost every platform and web browser, including smartphones. Another option is LastPass, which unlike KeePass stores the encrypted file containing your passwords on a server so it's always backed up and available.

  • Use secured web sites

Whenever you do anything remotely sensitive on a web site you should ensure the page offers a secure HTTP connection. Look for an address beginning 'https', indicating an encrypted link which is harder to intercept. Web browsers are also beginning to make this much clearer, for example Firefox changes the colour of the address bar when you're on a secure web site.

Optimise your PC

The limited data allowances of mobile broadband connections mean you have to be careful about downloads otherwise risk running out of credit or facing additional charges on the bill. Here are a few tips that can help get your PC ready for mobile broadband.

  • Disable images

All web browsers offer the ability to disable images. This saves data and makes pages load faster. It's not ideal for today's all singing and dancing multimedia web, but then a lot of the pictures on blogs and news sites aren't vital to understand the content so can be excluded. This is only a simple on/off option so you can just enable it again if there's a pic you have to see.

  • Optimise images

The Opera web browser has a brilliant feature that's built for slower connections and so ideal for mobile broadband. "Turbo Opera" uses Opera's own proxy servers to compress images and data before they're sent to you, saving you some bandwidth but without the need to entirely disable pictures. Opera is a great browser anyway but with Turbo Opera it's even better for MBB users.

  • Use Firefox addons

Firefox has a huge library of addons to extend the browser's capabilities and do all kinds of fun and useful things. Three in particular are perfect for mobile broadband (and everyone else for that matter). Flashblock prevents Flash content from loading automatically, replacing it with a button so you control when videos, adverts and other Flash content is run. NoScript offers quick toggles for enabling/disabling Java, JavaScript, SilverLight, Flash and images, adding extra security as well as preventing data-heavy content from loading without your knowledge. AdBlock Plus does exactly what it says and blocks adverts, not just popups but in-page ads, too.

  • Manually control updates

It's very important to keep a PC protected with the latest security patches and usually it's a good idea to have Windows Update running auotmatically, but when you're on a mobile broadband connection you might not want the sometimes sizeable patches to download without permission. But don't switch them off completely, instead go into the security options via Control Panel and set it to ask you before downloading. And it's not just Windows that will try to update automatically, many programs have automatic patch downloads so check the options menu to ensure this is either disabled or set to ask first.


  • happy

    by val mirasol at 4:25 on 30 Oct 2010 Report abuse

    Identity theft has become a major, major problem! And living without protection is like living in a crime infested neighborhood and not having protection on your home. You would probably at least have a really good guard dog and a fence right? Well, not protecting your identity today is the equivalent of living in that neighborhood and refusing to even lock your door. It’s so sad that it’s come to this, but there are always tradeoffs in life. Because we want better medical coverage and a nicer car we pay more to protect and insure them.
    Likewise, with something as amazing as the World Wide Web there come tradeoffs also. One tradeoff for us having access to almost everything is that others have access to almost everything about us, our information. And that includes our personal information like social security numbers, banking information and even your medical and criminal history.

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