Connecting to public wireless (Wi-Fi) hotspots has become routine for many of us – you can find public wireless networks almost everywhere – in fast food chains, libraries, parks and urban hotspots, as well as in your home. They have liberated us from our desks and made it possible to work on the go - But do they guarantee your safety?
Beware: “public hotspots” have been called that for a reason. They are open networks and therefore vulnerable to security breaches. They cannot guarantee your safety. When you connect to an unsecured Wi-Fi network, anyone on the same network potentially has access to your computer and to all your internet activities. They can snoop around in your emails and see what you’ve been doing on the internet, without needing your password. This applies to all hotspots – even to those that require pay-per-hour or monthly subscription fees. These are almost always unencrypted, so all your emails, passwords, security codes and other information can be visible to hackers lurking on the same network.
So it’s up to you to keep your data safe from prying eyes. These 5 tips will help:
- Use Encryption and https
If you have to send personal information when you’re on public Wi-Fi, then only send it to websites which are fully encrypted. You’ll know which these are by looking at the beginning of the resource locator (URL): if it has https at the beginning, it’s encrypted (the “s” stands for “secure”).
You should also protect your own files, or at least those which you’re intending to use on public Wi-Fi, by encrypting them, so they will need a password to open and modify them.
Protect your emails messages in public by selecting https or another secure connections option in your account settings. Most systems use https when you log in with your password, but some systems, for example some local software, switch back to plain http after authentication because they can more easily transmit advertising. In this case, motivated hackers on the same network potentially have access to your computer and can view the unencrypted internet traffic that you send. So make sure you know what system you’re using, and select the https or other secure connection option in your email account settings if your email provider supplies one.
- Install a firewall
A firewall protects networks against all file-sharing, and protects your PC by acting as a barrier against all incoming information, blocking anything which is considered a potential threat. Normally, at home your firewall is down, because your home computers need to share your Wi-Fi connection and your files. But when you’re in public, on an open network, you must ensure you put up a firewall, to guard against potential hackers. All Windows operating systems come with a firewall already installed, so you just have to check it’s turned on.
- Get VPN
For added safety, you should consider using a virtual private network (VPN) that puts encryption between your device and the internet, even when you’re using unsecured networks.
- Turn Wi-Fi off
When you’re not working on it, turn off your Wi-Fi capability, in case your notebook connects to a potentially dangerous hotspot without your realising it. If your notebook doesn’t have a Wi-Fi hardware button to disable the Wi-Fi adapter, you can disable it using your operating system.
Avoid transactions that require a lot of personal information, for example shopping and banking
Avoid giving credit card, insurance or social security numbers
Create different usernames and passwords for different accounts so if one is hacked the others stay safe
Cookies remember usernames and passwords, making data breaches easier. So before you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot,
delete your browsing history and your cookies
Log out of websites when you’ve finished with them
Configure your PC to let you approve access points before you connect
Disable your file and printer sharing when you’re out of the office or home