The risks of public wireless networks are well documented: WiFi sniffing, man-in-the-middle attacks, malware vulnerability and so on. But thanks to a study by Symantec, people’s tendency to ignore these risks is now well documented, too: 55% of respondents wouldn’t think twice about exchanging, sharing or even doing something to get a strong, free wireless signal.
Easily available WiFi can provide a lot of benefits and for many people, such as frequent travelers or remote workers, it can be much cheaper than using mobile data. All things considered, it’s not surprising that convenience wins over caution. But if you find yourself unable to resist the lure of a free signal, you may as well take steps to mitigate the risks.
There are a number of ways you can protect your devices and your data from the dangers of public WiFi. Some of them require some preparation, but others you can manage on the fly, if you find yourself in an unforeseen situation when you need a connection.
Here’s how to keep your information safe on the public WiFi networks you shouldn’t be using but probably will anyway:
Choose Your Connections
Start by choosing the right connections. Choose encrypted networks, those with WPA2 or similar protection, whenever you can. Avoid unencrypted networks, which, for some reason, still exist up to now.
Secured networks will show up with certain indicators based on your operating system. For Windows, unsecured networks will have shield with an exclamation point.
For macOS, secured networks will have a lock icon.
Some scammers mimic public signals of nearby establishments, hoping to lure people in with an open, hassle-free network—only to steal their account information later. If you’re using the network at a cafe, lounge, airport, etc. it’s a good idea to ask the staff which their official networks are. Or, again, just avoid entirely unsecured networks.
Also Read: [How Can I Keep My Children Safe Online?]
You should also configure your settings to treat the connection as public. This may be phrased differently depending on your OS, but the main points to consider are: 1) you don’t automatically connect to the network; 2) other devices on the network can’t detect yours. You may also want to disable file sharing functions, such as Apple’s AirDrop.
Security on Browsers, Pages and Apps
Connection security also functions on the level of web pages and programs. Information sent through such secure connections receives a higher level of protection than you’d get from simple network encryption, so even on a secure network, you should pick secure options.
In browsers, it’s easy to tell: secure web pages are marked by “https://” in their URL and often have the word “Secure” and a lock icon in the address bar. There are also some browser extensions, such as HTTPS Everywhere, that ensure your browser uses a secure connection on all websites that support them. It has no effect on websites that don’t support them, though.
It’s a bit harder to tell when a mobile app uses a secure connection. There’s typically no easy indicator, so you’d have to check apps on a case-to-case basis. That said, many messaging apps are aware of the importance of encryption, so messengers that have encryption will likely be upfront about it.
Antivirus and Antimalware Programs
The above fixes will protect you from unwanted surveillance within the network, but won’t do much if malicious software gets into your device. To prevent that, it’s important to have solid virus and malware protection.
Most operating systems these days come with built-in security software that’s quite effective as long as you keep it up-to-date. For a more proactive, comprehensive approach, you can use a combination of an on-access antivirus, the typical antivirus program; and one on-demand anti-malware tool, which focuses on emerging threats rather than old ones.
Virtual Private Networks
Your best option for ensuring your information stays private on public WiFi is to use a virtual private network (VPN) service. A VPN establishes an encrypted tunnel between your device and a server or endpoint under the service’s control. This protects all data sent through it from unwanted surveillance. Other users on the network will see only that you’re connected to a VPN, not what data is sent through it.
Paid VPN services usually restrict the number of devices that can connect to them, so make sure the one you get can cover all the devices you regularly use (without any added fees). Also find one with servers in regions that are convenient for you.
Free VPN services may be tempting, but if find out how they support their operations before subscribing. Some rely on ads but others, such as Hola, have been known to sell user information to keep themselves running. Which rather defeats the purpose of using one.
Taking the steps above will minimize the risk you face on public WiFi, but it won’t eliminate it entirely. Even if you have your defenses in place, it’s best not to send any sensitive information, such bank or credit card details, through a public network. And when possible, find alternatives to relying on public networks.