Do you feel safe when you connect to a hotspot at a cafe, airport, or some other public location? You shouldn't. A lot of potential dangers hide there, including nearby hackers who may try to pilfer your data, or people who might attempt other ways to snoop on what you're doing online. You're in particular danger if you visit any Web sites and type in your user name and password — they could be hijacked.
This freebie could solve the problem. It claims to encrypt all of your data and packets while you're in a public location, shielding you from harm. The program is simplicity itself — install it and run it, and it promises to protect you.
A few notes about its use. When you install it, make sure to prevent the Dealio toolbar from installing — it's annoying adware, and the program works fine without it. Also, when you launch the program, your default browser will launch too, and ads may appear in it. You can just close that down, though, and Hotspot Shield will still work fine.
Download Hotspot Shield Price: Free
Here's another application that, like Hotspot Shield, sets up a virtual private network (VPN) for you when you're at a hotspot, or when you want to protect your wireless transmissions for any reason. Run the software, log in, and choose a server (currently your choice is only the United States or the United Kingdom), and everything you do will be hidden through 128-bit SSL encryption.
The software also promises to get around a problem that can occur when people are outside the United States and want to view certain American TV shows over the Internet: Since some sites block access to such shows to all but American IP addresses, as the creators claim, if you choose a US WiFi Guardian server when you log in, the server will give you a US IP address. As a result, you should be able to watch the show.
Download WiFi Guardian Price: Free (trial for 30 days; $US5 per 1GB transferred)
This tool is great for sniffing out any nearby networks, as well as for getting a great deal of information about them, to make it easier to decide whether you should connect. It scans for Wi-Fi networks and it reports, for each of them, the SSID (network name), the MAC address of the wireless router, the signal strength, whether the network is encrypted, the type of encryption, your connection status, the frequency on which the network operates, and more.
It also reports whether the network is in infrastructure mode (where you're connected to a wireless router), or ad hoc mode (a PC-to-PC connection). Ad hoc connections are potentially dangerous, so you should stay away from them unless you know the person whose machine you'll connect to.
On top of all that is another nice extra: You can view a graph of the signal strength, in real time, of any nearby network. And to connect to any network that WiFi Hopper finds, you simply double-click it.
Download WiFi Hopper Price: Free (trial for 15 days; $US35)
This freebie is designed to work with the US Wi-Fi provider Azulstar, but it's even useful for people who aren't Azulstar customers. It displays information about your current wireless connection, including the SSID, the signal strength, the access point channel, the gateway, the domain of your Internet provider, and much more. It also offers a set of troubleshooting tools, checking for any problems with your IP address, signal strength, and so on.
It's generally useful, but it also makes mistakes on occasion — for example, it might report that you have poor wireless link quality, when in fact the connection is good. Still, you can't argue with free.
download Wireless Wizard Price: Free
Don't like to carry around a dedicated GPS device? No problem. Turn your laptop into your navigator with this very clever toolbar, which works in both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It employs triangulation technology with any Wi-Fi connections near you to determine your location in concert with its Wi-Fi Positioning System. In addition, it will show you nearby movies, shopping, traffic, weather, and so on via various channels, though the channels often appear in a separate browser window.
Be prepared to be offended (or entertained) by some channels, such as the one that shows nearby strip clubs for both men and women. And I discovered that the channel information isn't always particularly helpful — for instance, the restaurants channel showed me establishments located miles away rather than those nearby. Still, the channels are of some use.
Loki Toolbar functions as a social networking tool, too. You can choose to have your location shown to other people, and see their location, so that you can connect with them in the real world.
Loki Toolbar Price: Free