Depending on which tech outlets you read, you may be terrified to connect to public Wi-Fi. There could be hackers hiding around every corner! They’ll steal your identity!They’ll make reservations at restaurants in your name with no intention of showing up! They’ll pose as you on Facebook and post incendiary things about how you hate puppies!
That doesn’t mean you should ignore the very real threats you could face by accessing public Wi-Fi networks, far from it, but there are plenty of ways to protect yourself.
Business Insider even has a handy infographic showing some of the most dangerous public Wi-Fi spots around the world you should take extra precaution at, but there are common sense ways to stay safe regardless of where you are. Some require a few steps, while others are as simple as choosing wisely.
The greatest threats from public Wi-Fi aren’t from others on the Internet, but people on that same network in what’s known as a man-in-the-middle attack. The attacker intercepts communications between the original sender and the site they are trying to access. The attacker can then see the data being transferred, and in some cases even pose as one of the parties.
We have a few tips on how to protect yourself from public Wi-Fi. Think we missed any? Let us know in the comments below!
Don’t access unknown Wi-Fi Networks
This is the nuclear option if you are seriously worried about using public Wi-Fi. If you fall into that category, there’s a simple option: Don’t use public Wi-Fi.
You aren’t required to connect to public Wi-Fi, and you can even turn off Wi-Fi on both computers and mobile devices – it’s literally as simple as hitting a button.
If you are on your phone, you can connect via your carrier network. If you need to connect with a laptop, most smartphones can also act as hotspots, creating their own Wi-Fi signals. Additional charges may apply, so check with your carrier.
Not only is it just good for the sake of security to not hop on random Wi-Fi networks, it’s also the right thing to do.
It’s the responsibility of the person in charge of the Wi-Fi network to encrypt it, but still, don’t be that guy. Jumping on someone’s private Wi-Fi network without permission is kind of like watching someone else’s TV by standing outside their window and peeping in.
Just don’t do it and we’ll all be happier. In fact…
Don’t use your Wi-Fi when you don’t need to
Most devices will allow you to choose whether or not to auto-connect when they receive a signal from a recognized, or open network. Turn this off.
It might save you a few MBs or even KBs on your mobile device’s service plan to use Wi-Fi instead of your carrier, but it will save you a lot of headaches.
Download anti-virus software for all devices
If you aren’t familiar with anti-virus and anti-spyware software, if you have navigated the Information Age thus far without any need for these types of programs, you are a walking miracle.
All operating systems are subject to the occasional virus, spyware, and carious pieces of malware. In the past, it used to be that viruses were designed to corrupt your system. They were digital bombs flung from the Internet for malicious fun. That hasn’t been the case for quite awhile though. Now, the majority of malware is designed to gain information or to hijack your computer.
The scariest types of attacks are the ones you don’t even know about.
There are countless programs for Apple and Windows that offer tools to prevent malware from finding its way onto your computer, and many of these programs can also monitor your online usage to detect attacks.
Some are free, but many have options you will need to pay for. Whether it is worth it or not is up to you.
Know where you are logging on
A common exploit hackers use is to set up a Wi-Fi network in a popular area, and name that network something that will make you think you are using a legit source.
For example, you may be at Starbucks and see “Starbucks Free Wi-Fi” that doesn’t require a login. Check with the employees before connecting – especially if you see another, encrypted network with a similar name.
Look for security
Depending on the network you are on, it can be painfully easy for someone on that same network to access your computer or device and see what you are seeing. In some cases they can even edit the information on a website you may have given info to (social media, for example).
If you go to a site that requires a login and password, check to see that it is secure. Most will encrypt the login itself, which stops people from accessing the account from that end, but if you are on the same network as a hacker, if the site isn’t secure, they can bypass the login and access your info through the network. Once you’ve unlocked the account it remains open.
On a computer, look for sites that use “HTTPS.” If you are on a more common “HTTP” site, hackers can easily access the text traded between your device and the website. If you are just searching for articles on a news website, that won’t matter too much, but if you need to enter any private information, be warned. Maybe you are applying for a job, and the online application requires your Social security number. That’s something you’ll want to protect.
The HTTPS protocol is a new-ish security standard, but it’s more and more becoming the accepted standard. If you are entering secure information, check the address bar in your browser and look for that “S” in the HTTPS.
Mobile browsers are a little different though. You may not be able to see that a site is secure. If you are entering sensitive information, use the site’s mobile website as opposed to an app. You can verify how secure it is that way.
As a general rule though, no matter how secure your device is, no matter how much you trust the public Wi-Fi, you should always exchange any financial information – especially your credit card – at home or on another secure network you can trust.
Turn off your sharing options
Both Apple and Windows operating systems have multiple options when it comes to sharing. These are meant to make it easier for things like sharing files at home between devices, as well as using other hardware on a network, like a printer. It can leave you open to attack though.
Just go into the network settings of your OS and look for the sharing options (In Windows it’s under the advanced options in the network settings; on Apple devices, it’s under System Preferences.
If you are on an unfamiliar network, do not accept any updates. This is becoming a more common form of attack, with hackers trying to trick people into thinking their device needs an update. When you accept that update, you are really accepting a host of malware on your device.
Only update your devices while on a secure network.
Use a Virtual Private Network
Say you absolutely have to connect to a Wi-Fi network regardless of security. Maybe someone needs your credit card information to continue providing a vital service and you find yourself forced to jump on “Uncle Tone’s Wi-Fi of fun.” Not suspicious at all…
Alternatively, maybe you are determined to make the local coffee shop your office for the day, and their Wi-Fi network was set up by a guy that thinks VHS is going to make a comeback. Regardless, there is an option, but it requires a little additional work on your end.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) routes all your online activity through a private, secure server. Lifehacker recommends a free and easy to use VPN called CyberGhost, but there are plenty of others. You simply download it, run through the setup wizard to install it, then turn it on when you need it.
If you need to pass on info online, you can always use your phone, just don’t use the Wi-Fi. It isn’t completely secure, but it is safer than using an unknown Wi-Fi network.
If you really want to be secure, there are also VPN options for mobile devices, but you may need to pay for them. Shop around and choose the option that best fits you.
If you frequently check your email on unsecured Wi-Fi networks, be sure to go into the options and turn on the “SSL” option.
If you are using a web-based program for this – Gmail, Yahoo, etc., etc. – you should be fine. The companies themselves work to secure this line of communication. If you are using a separate program for your email – Outlook or Apple Mail, for example – make sure to go into the settings and look for the “Use SSL” option.