Fast Forward's Help File

Beware the Unencrypted Inbox

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Q When I log into my Internet provider's Web-mail page, I don't see the usual lock icon. Isn't it dangerous to send a password over the Internet without encryption?

AAbsolutely. If a company -- such as this reader's Internet provider, Cox -- transmits users' passwords as clear text, eavesdroppers can collect this data and use it to start breaking into people's accounts.

The reader had hoped to see one of the signs of an encrypted, secure login: a lock icon at the top or bottom of the browser or a Web address starting with "https" instead of "http." (Firefox, Internet Explorer 7 and Opera also highlight the address bar in yellow.)

Online financial institutions have used this defense from the start, and many Web-mail sites now employ it, too. But at some, such as Microsoft's Hotmail and Live Mail, it's only optional (click their "enhanced security" link to fix that). Others are still getting around to offering encryption; Cox, for example, says it will add that in the first quarter of this year.

The biggest reason to look for the visual cues of a secure login is to help spot phishing scams -- phony pages that, unlike the sites they impersonate, almost never use encryption.

How do I know if I have a digital tuner in my TV, VCR or DVD recorder?

If you have to ask, you probably don't. Until a few years ago, even many high-definition sets lacked the "ATSC" digital tuners needed to receive free digital broadcasts off the air. ("NTSC" tuners are analog only.) Most video recorders still don't include this feature -- though that should change in March, courtesy of a Federal Communications Commission mandate.

To find out for sure, connect an antenna to your TV or recorder, then try to tune in a channel like "4.1." If the remote lets you enter a number like that in the first place, and you then get any signal at all, you've got a digital tuner.

Rob Pegoraro attempts to untangle computing conundrums and errant electronics each week. Send questions to The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071

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