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Encrypting your online conversations

November 8, 2010 by Sara Nagreen


Working in Van Hise, I hear many different languages.  They are cryptic sounds of beautiful words rolling about, making me imagine exotic and far flung places.

Computers talk languages like this too.  Network traffic is a conversation on a wire, or in the case of the UWNet wireless network, over radio waves.  If you are listening to an unencrypted conversation, you can understand what is being said.  If you are listening on an encrypted conversation, it's like a foreign language to the listener.  The traffic is still there, but it makes no sense. 

Why is this important?  There are tools out in the "wild" that can listen to this unencrypted network traffic.  These tools can take the unencrypted network traffic and use it to hijack sessions in things like Facebook, Twitter or Amazon.  This is because these web applications don't encrypt anything after the signon, just the signon. 

Places like most banks have long been encrypting their entire website, so traffic between your computer and your bank is likely much safer than those web apps.  The UW web applications, such as or WiscMail, have long been following the bank model of total encryption.  This is the safest model, but sadly not widely practiced.  You can watch the https: in the address as you browse around your favorite password protected sites, or look at the little lock on your browser to judge your encryption.  You can notice the sites that only partially encrypt very easily.  These put you at risk.

How can you protect yourself?  You can download and use WiscVPN on your online transactions; this is a free piece of software that can help your computer talk encrypted all of the time.  It goes though a gateway at DoIT where you can use your netid to prove your identity and makes your traffic very difficult to the average computer hacker.  This is something used by a lot of laptop users to connect to a shared drive, or a library resource, but this is the first time that we've heard that using this utility on a more regular basis might be a good idea.

You should especially do this when connected to an unencrypted wireless network such as UWNet or your local coffee shop.  This is a wide open network of unknown people that could be listening to each other's conversations. It would be very easy to be exploited by a saavy user without protection.

DoIT has some suggestions for how to deal with this particular issue, and you can read more here. 

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