Just wondering if others can see what I’m downloading, say in a coffee shop or some other public place, like the administrator there? Or can they just tell that something is being downloaded. It’s a local place so I assume they have some local provider like Comcast. I imagine it just takes up their bandwidth and they don’t like that because it makes the connection slow for others in the establishment. Please let me know.
In this excerpt from Answercast #83, I look at safety in an internet cafe and how the owner, or even the guy right next to you, might be snooping.
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Open WiFi hotspot downloads
So, yes, absolutely. Your ISP can see everything you do.
If you’re not taking additional steps to obfuscate, encrypt, or otherwise hide what you are doing, absolutely! Your ISP can see that you are downloading: say, a specific file from a specific location.
Now, why do I keep saying “ISP” when you’re actually at a coffee house?
The letters I.S.P. stand for Internet Service Provider. What is the coffee house doing? They are providing internet service to you. By being the administrator of an open Wi-Fi hotspot, that person can in fact monitor all unencrypted traffic and understand exactly what it is you’re doing or not.
Do hotspot owners watch?
Whether or not they care, whether or not they do is a completely different subject.
My guess is that, you know, the local manager at Starbucks doesn’t really care what you are doing with the internet – doesn’t really care what you’re downloading as long it’s legal. But, they can look, they can watch.
I have a couple of items in an article called, “How do I stay safe in an internet café?” That will point you to a couple of services that provide that VPN service.
But ultimately, that’s the only way to really hide what you’re doing from the coffee shop owner, from the administrator, or basically from your ISP.
Using up bandwidth
Now, the other part of this equation is bandwidth. When you’re using a VPN, they may not see what it is you’re downloading – but they can still see that you’re downloading a lot. They can probably figure out which computer connected to their hotspot is the guilty party. So it is still possible for them to identify you as being a bandwidth hog. They just can’t necessarily tell what it is you’re doing; they can’t tell exactly what file it is you’re downloading.
So ultimately, check out the article, “How do I stay safe in an internet café?” It has some very important tips to keep what you’re doing safe and secure.
Ultimately, a VPN is really the only way to protect at the level that you are discussing – where you’re just doing arbitrary file downloads. Most people don’t necessarily need that.
Security through https
If all you’re doing is email or banking, or those kinds of things, that are already using an https connection. Yeah, they can tell that you’ve connected up to your bank, or they can tell that you’ve connected up to your email provider, but they can’t read your email, they can’t see your banking information. That’s all encrypted by https.
The problem here is that so many things involving downloads are not necessarily https encrypted. In which case, yes, they can be seen.
As a matter of fact, the person sitting behind you with their own Wi-Fi-enabled laptop could potentially be watching what you download as well.
(Transcript lightly edited for readability.)
Next from Answercast 83 – Will a desktop and a laptop of the same specification have the same performance?