Walt Mossberg

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Mossberg’s Mailbox

Wi-Fi Hotspot Safety and Mac Viruses

Q:

I have had a little disagreement with my IT guy. He says that when taking my laptop out in public, I should never type anything with passwords or confidential information. He says that someone can pick up my information. I say that I can’t believe that everyone in public is totally exposed. There must be some way to protect yourself while on a public network. Who is right?

A:

There’s no single correct answer. It’s true that thieves in public places can and do steal passwords and other sensitive information transferred over public Wi-Fi hotspots. But it’s also true that methods like Virtual Private Networks can mitigate this problem, and that most public hotspots are, just by the odds, unlikely to harbor these thieves at any one time. However, my advice is to avoid doing any sensitive tasks, like banking or stock trading, while using public hotspots. And, if you’re doing anything confidential on your company or home network remotely, use a VPN, which is like a secure tunnel through the internet.

Q:

I recently purchased a new iMac and am considering installing anti-virus/spyware/malware programs on it. Reader forums in MacWorld magazine say it’s not needed. A local newspaper computer columnist says he’s had Macs since the early ’80s and has never run an AV program and has had no problems. Other online computer advisers say Macs are always vulnerable and advise to run AV programs. Any recommendations here?

A:

No computer is inherently invulnerable to malicious software, and that includes the Macintosh. However, nearly every malicious program known is meant to run on Windows and simply won’t operate on the Mac operating system. The handful of Mac viruses and other malware that have been discovered are either proofs of concept, or have spread to very few users and done little or no damage. Most Mac users I’ve known don’t run third-party security software and haven’t had malware problems. So I don’t routinely recommend Mac security software.

There are two caveats, however. If you are running Windows on your Mac, you should install Windows security software, to run while Windows is in use. Also, Mac users are just as vulnerable as Windows users are to online scams, or to insecure public networks. So, even though you may never get a virus, you still have to be careful about doing sensitive Internet tasks via public hotspots or careless behavior like clicking on links sent you by unknown email senders.

Q:

My car has an audio jack that integrates any input into the sound system. I know that Kindle has a text-to-speech feature. Would I be able to use that feature via the audio jack in the car?

A:

Without having tested your car’s input jack, I assume the answer is yes. The Kindle has a standard headphone jack.

However, note that the text-to-speech feature works only on certain books, not all of them. Publishers have the right to allow or disallow it for any book.

Also, even if it’s enabled, it isn’t the same as an audio book, which is usually read by a trained narrator or by the author. Instead, it’s a computer doing the reading.

You can find Mossberg’s Mailbox and my other columns at the All Things Digital website, http://walt.allthingsd.com.


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