Ed. Note: Tim Sohn’s post about places freelancers can access free Wi-Fi proved pretty popular even before Superstorm Sandy, but Reese has a good point about security. Read on for her tips about keeping your data secure while surfing on public Wi-Fi. Do you use any of these strategies? Or do you know of others? Leave a comment and let us know!
By Reese Jones
Public Wi-Fi can be a great way to get online, often for free, while you’re out and about. More and more people are making good use of their local Wi-Fi hotspots when using their smartphones or laptop computers. However, others are still wary of using public Wi-Fi due to the associated security risks. If you want to be able to access the internet using public Wi-Fi while keeping your personal data safe and secure, then here are a few tips to bear in mind.
One of the easiest ways to protect your computer when using pubic Wi-Fi is to make sure that your firewall is turned on. Most operating systems will already have a basic firewall installed, but it may not automatically be enabled. Although your firewall won’t offer complete protection, it can offer a degree of security when accessing public Wi-Fi networks.
Visit encrypted sites
In addition, you should also try to use SSL encrypted sites whenever possible. HTTPS and SSL connections encrypt data sent to and from a web server, so it becomes unreadable to hackers – something which can prove particularly important when entering passwords and other confidential information. Although most websites that require you to enter information will be automatically encrypted, it is worth double-checking to make sure the site URL starts with https:// rather than just http://, as this indicates a higher level of security.
Use Virtual Private Networks or VPNs
If possible, it is always a good idea to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), as this will encrypt all information which you send and receive, even when you use an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection. In effect, you will have the security of a private network, even when using a public internet connection. Some businesses provide employees with their own VPN, especially if they might be required to work while on the move. However, if your employer doesn’t have a VPN for you to use, sites such as anchorfree.com also offer Hotspot Shield, a downloadable app which ensures VPN security settings are always in place.
Check your file and printer sharing settings
Your computer’s file and printer sharing capabilities can make you much more vulnerable to hackers when using public Wi-Fi. When at home or in an office, this feature allows you to share files and printer systems between more than one computer. However, by leaving sharing enabled when using public Wi-Fi, others using the same network may be able to access your private data more easily, especially if it is not password-protected. Simply disable the file and printer sharing feature to stay secure.
Beware of evil twin networks
It is also a good idea to double-check the name of the Wi-Fi connection you are planning to use. Hackers have been known to use “evil twin” networks, which use a similar name to the one you were hoping to connect to, and are designed purely to collect passwords and data. Whether you’re accessing Wi-Fi at a restaurant, train station or café, it can be worth finding out the exact name of the Wi-Fi network which they provide. The Wi-Fi connection is likely to be even more secure if you are required to give a password to gain access to the network.
Turn off your wireless and work downstream
Although Wi-Fi hotspots are often pleasant places to work, you may find that you do not always need to connect to the Wi-Fi network for the entire duration of your stay. If this is the case, then it can certainly be well worth turning off the wireless when you’re not using it in order to ensure your security. You may not have actively connected to a particular Wi-Fi network, but leaving your Wi-Fi enabled still leaves your computer vulnerable when in a public Wi-Fi hotspot.
Protect yourself again password peeping Toms
Lastly, it is also a good idea to be aware of the more physical risks of using public Wi-Fi. When you go online in a public place, you run the risk of having other looking over your shoulder and reading what’s on your screen. Take care that these peeping Toms (and Tomasinas) don’t see you typing in any passwords or credit card details. It can be a good idea to avoid accessing sensitive material altogether when using public Wi-Fi connections, and to keep your wits about you when entering confidential information.
Reese Jones is a tech and gadget lover, a die-hard fan of iOS and console games. She started her writing venture recently and writes about everything from quick tech tips, to mobile-specific news from the likes of O2, to tech-related DIY. Find more about her and her work at Reese+ and tweet her @r_am_jones.
Image courtesy of Just2shutter/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net