By Zachary Amos, Features Editor at ReHack
You can find free Wi-Fi in almost any public area, from libraries to restaurants to airports, but its easy access also makes it vulnerable. Whenever you connect your device to public Wi-Fi, your personal information runs the risk of being stolen.
When you access an unprotected site on a public network, you leave your information out in the open for anyone to see. Someone can find your login credentials for your email, social media, or worse, your bank account. They could even steal your identity.
All the usual security measures you take in your own home, such as a lengthy Wi-Fi password, are stripped away, exposing you to cyberattacks. However, you can take other measures to ensure your devices stay secure on public networks. Here are some tips to keep in mind next time you connect to public Wi-Fi.
Before connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, you can easily do one of two things to make sure it’s legitimate:
- Look closely at the network’s name. If it contains many random letters and numbers, you’d best avoid it.
- Ask an employee for the correct network. Hackers often create Wi-Fi hotspots similar to businesses’ real public networks, a tactic known as the evil twin attack. If you see two options with similar names, ask someone for help.
While on a public network, some websites are safer to browse than others. You can identify safe websites by looking for HTTPS at the beginning of the web address, which indicates that its data is encrypted.
HTTPS stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure, which is the improved version of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Most web browsers use HTTPS to send encrypted data to websites, including your information.
Encryption is the essential process of converting data into a new code that only authorized parties can read. You should do your part to encrypt your data by using tools such as OneDrive, BitLocker, or FileVault.
You might see a closed padlock symbol next to the link as well, depending on your browser, which also means the website is safe. Always check for these cues before going onto a website, especially if you are entering sensitive information.
As the name suggests, antiviruses block viruses and malware that can cause harm to your devices. Robust antivirus software will immediately notify you of any potential threats when you’re connected to a public network.
Malware is the most concerning threat, as it comes in many forms and hackers can quickly profit from it. Some common examples of malware you need to look out for include:
- Tricking a person into revealing personal information
- Stealing financial data
- Using devices to mine for cryptocurrency
Antivirus software identifies malware and stops the data gathering process before it begins. You should already have an antivirus app installed on your computer. In case you don’t, explore these reliable options.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) are great tools to secure your internet connection and private information. They hide your IP address and encrypt your data so unauthorized people can’t read it, making public Wi-Fi safe to access.
Paid VPNs work better than free VPNs as a general rule, but they are a worthwhile investment if it means you can browse public networks securely.
Windows Firewall is a useful security feature for desktops because it can prevent cybercriminals from accessing your information without authorization. It also monitors the data that comes from external sources and blocks anything that it considers a threat.
Computers and laptops are more vulnerable to cyberattacks than mobile devices since they normally have more information stored on them, so you should take all the security measures you can and keep your Firewall activated.
You might have Firewall disabled on your desktop device, so double-check its status in your settings. If you don’t know how to reactivate it, follow these steps and you’ll have it up and running in no time.
Even if you have a VPN or antivirus installed and only go onto HTTPS-secured sites, you should still practice good browsing habits to lower the risk of a cyberattack. Here are some little things you can do to browse public networks more safely:
- Turn off the “connect automatically” or “connect without asking” feature
- Use two-factor authentication on all of your accounts
- Refrain from browsing sites that have your personal or financial information
- Use different passwords and sign out when you finish browsing
- “Forget” the public network after using it
While the previously mentioned tools are great outer defenses for your devices, you still need to be doing your part on the inside. These precautionary measures will go a long way in keeping your devices secure on public networks.
If you see a public network and don’t feel comfortable connecting to it, remember that you have other options. You can refrain from using public Wi-Fi altogether and rely on your phone’s mobile data, which is much more secure.
Or, if you don’t want to use all your data, you can invest in a personal Wi-Fi hotspot. There are many great options for each network, so you are bound to find one that suits your needs. Hotspots are especially useful for remote workers who need fast, private connections.
In this digital world, we often take for granted how accessible our information is — not just to us but to everyone else, too. Using a public Wi-Fi network might be convenient, but it carries some serious risks. Take care of yourself and your information by following the above tips, and make your public browsing experience as safe as possible.
As the Features Editor at ReHack, Zac Amos writes about cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and other tech topics.