The internet is used daily by almost everyone in the industrialized world, in both their work and personal lives. Wi-Fi has made it even easier to access information online, do business and even shop — whenever you want, wherever you are – whether you’re at home, at work, or anywhere around the world. Though certainly convenient, practical and an invaluable tool for a whole host of personal and professional uses, it’s easy to forget that Wi-Fi does pose some very real potential security risks.
In fact, according to a study by Identity Theft Resource Center, about 40% of the people they polled reported being unconcerned about using public Wi-Fi. Of those, less than half took steps to secure their connection on these networks. This is especially concerning when you factor in the most common activities that take place on public Wi-Fi:
- Logging into personal email accounts
- Using social media
- Accessing banking information
Let’s explore how to make the best use of public Wi-Fi while remaining safe.
Vet the Network Before Logging on
This may seem like a no-brainer, but don’t just automatically connect to the first Wi-Fi hotspot that springs up on your mobile device. These could be potential honeypots – they usually don’t even belong to the business or restaurant that you’re visiting and are often designed by bandwidth borrowers and hackers.
User beware! Unless you frequent a business regularly, you should always ask an employee what their network is called before attempting to access their guest Wi-Fi. Also, you should make sure your wireless device’s automatic connection to unknown networks is always disabled, so you can be sure you won’t ever be inadvertently connected to a network without your consent.
Only use Websites That Have an HTTPS Connection
Whenever you choose to use public Wi-Fi, stick to websites that use an HTTPS connection. HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) is an extension of the standard Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). It is used to help secure communication over a Wi-Fi network. Make sure “https” appears in the address bar and look for the padlock icon. These both tell you that your connection is encrypted, and that your data is secure. When you visit sites that use an encrypted HTTPS connection, all other simultaneously connected users are prevented from snooping on what you’re doing. Conversely, if you visit sites that use an unencrypted HTTP connection on a public network, you are pretty much granting other connected devices access to data that travels between you and the server of the website you're connected to – a risky proposition by any measure.
Use a VPN or two-factor Authentication
By and large one of the most effective ways of staying safe is to install a VPN or Virtual Private Network client on your mobile device. VPN, in fact, is the most robust protection you can use in order to stay secure over public Wi-Fi. A VPN sends your Internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel, making it extremely difficult for others on the network to see what you're doing, or intercept and decipher your data. Once you have a VPN app on your device all you have to do is connect to a remote VPN server, and you can join any wireless network without putting your security at risk.
Another alternative is to use two-factor authentication - a security process in which the user provides two different authentication factors to verify themselves to better protect both the user's credentials and the resources the user can access. Two-factor authentication provides a higher level of assurance than authentication methods that depend on single-factor authentication and adds an additional layer of security by making it harder for hackers to gain access to a person's devices or online accounts.
Don't Share Files
File sharing is extremely handy, especially when working on a project or sharing on a home network. Whether you’re using iCloud, Dropbox, or Google Drive, file sharing allows large teams or a group of individuals to access, organize and work on multiple files at the same time. This is extremely convenient on a secure network. However, the same rules do not apply when you are accessing public Wi-Fi. If you’re in file sharing mode on public Wi-Fi, your folders are easily accessible to anyone connected to the same network. In essence, file sharing mode automatically exposes your device and everything you’ve marked as sharable to access by all others on the same network. As such, it’s imperative to ALWAYS turn off file sharing mode on your mobile device prior to logging onto a public network. To protect yourself further, you’ll also want to check your firewall settings to make sure you’re fully protected at all times.
Wi-Fi offers consumers tremendous conveniences. That being said, it’s important to always be cognizant of the inherent risks of accessing public Wi-Fi. With caution, a little foresight and the right tools, you and your loved ones can fully benefit from the convenience of free and easily accessible public Wi-Fi, all while staying safe and protecting your personal data.