Public-access computer safety

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q. When I travel, I use computers at Internet kiosks, libraries, and similar places to check email, pay bills, etc. As a security measure, I use a USB flash drive for my data, thinking that this is the best and safest way to use public-access computers. Am I doing the right thing and playing it safe?

A. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but as a general proposition, there is really nothing you can do to make a public-access computer truly secure. For example, there are hardware- and software-based keystroke loggers that are invisible to any user. As the name implies, keystroke loggers capture every keystroke entered on a computer’s keyboard, including passwords, account numbers, credit card numbers, names, addresses, Social Security numbers, messages, URLs, etc. You would have no way of knowing of the existence of such a device.

To play it safe, if you must use a public computer of the type you describe, avoid entering passwords or login information; don’t type in any personal information, don't purchase anything or conduct any financial transactions. If you check email, just keep in mind that you will be entering your username and password. As a practical matter, I avoid using public-access computers, if at all possible.

Having said all that, most public-access computers located within reputable establishments such as libraries, private venues such as airline frequent-flyer lounges, mainstream hotel and motel chains, etc. are safe, but there are absolutely no guarantees, so caution is well advised.

Q. I know you’ve covered this before, Mr. M., but I’ve forgotten how I can determine how much space I have left on my computer’s hard drive. As I recall, it’s shown in a diagram with pink and blue inside of it. Thanks very much.

A. You’re correct; pink for free space, blue for used space. To view this colorful pie chart, go to Computer (or My Computer, depending on the version of Windows you're using) then right-click the drive you wish to check (usually the C: drive) and select Properties. That will display information about the drive, including the amount of free and used space.

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Gallery of Obscure Patents
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The Pay Phone Project
Remember the good old days before cell phones, when you carried change in your pocket just in case you needed to stop and use a pay phone? (Younger readers will have no idea what I'm talking about.) The Pay Phone Project is a quasi-nostalgic site that has photographs, news, stories, and actual phone numbers of telephone booths and pay phones worldwide, just in case you want to place a call.

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