Protect Your Devices on Public Wi-Fi

The number of public places where free Wi-Fi is available has exploded in the last few years. From airports and shopping centers, to coffee shops and restaurants, there are few places where you can’t now find a wireless connection for your phone, tablet or laptop.

And while this is great for those of us that want/need to stay connected day and night, accessing Wi-Fi in a public place does bring with it some dangers you won’t generally encounter on your home network.

What Makes Public Wi-Fi Unsafe?

Let us start by saying that not all public Wi-Fi is equally unsafe. A coffee shop that has a new Wi-Fi password chalked up on the board every day is probably safer to use than a coffee shop where the password has been the same for five years, but not really by much. As a rule of thumb, you should assume that any network connection you do not control will have fewer defences against interception and should be treated as unsafe.

The very same features that make publicly accessible Wi-Fi hotspots desirable for you and us, such as the lack of authentication needed to connect, makes them desirable for hackers too.

Hackers are able to insert themselves between your device and the network connection point, so all of the information sent to and from the network passes through the hacker, who then passes it on. As this information passes, it can be collected without you even knowing it has passed through a third party device.

Even if a hacker doesn’t want to farm your data directly, public Wi-Fi connections can be used to distribute malware if you allow file-sharing across a network. This malware could hide itself on your device and cause all sorts of problems, from logging keystrokes to sending spam emails to contacts as if they are from you.

As the use of public Wi-Fi increases, you can expect the number of different ways hackers can find to attack those using it to increase as well. But that doesn’t mean you need to stop using Wi-Fi Hotspots, you just need to ensure that you are not the easy target most hackers are looking for.

If you want to stay connected, but also want to keep yourself and your device safe, there are a few simple thing you can do to tighten up security without compromising your Internet access.

Five Ways to Make Public Wi-Fi Safer to Use

1 Keep Your Device Updated

Software updates, as well as providing new features, will often include security updates, so it is important to make sure all of your device software is the most recent version. This includes apps and programs, as well as OS updates.

Almost all modern devices, from your smartphone and tablet to the laptop you use, make it very easy to keep things updated, often alerting you to the availability of an update or processing updates automatically.

If you have turned off automatic updating on your device (and don’t want to turn it back on in the settings), make a point to regularly check for them yourself. And, of course, apply them as soon as possible, especially on devices that may be used to connect to public Wi-Fi.

2 Turn Off Sharing

Your phone, tablet and computer are designed to interact easily with other devices you own using a system known as Sharing. Sharing, as the name suggests, allows data or even files to be shared or accessed from devices on the same network. This is normally perfectly fine when all of your devices are connected to your home network, but not so fine when you are connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

When using your devices online in public, you should always turn sharing off. This can be done in System Preferences (on a Mac), in Network and Sharing (on a Windows PC). In Windows you can also just select “Public” when asked about a new network connection.

Many mobile devices also allow you to turn off Network Discovery or Device Visibility, meaning it is hidden from other devices connected to the same network. You can normally find this option in the Connections or Wi-Fi settings.

3 Use a VPN

A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a great way of protecting yourself and your device from hackers, and are becoming increasingly popular, and therefore increasingly cheap and easy to use.

A VPN provides you with a secure, private and encrypted network to log in to from your device. Any data sent to and from your device is then encrypted by the VPN at both ends (known as end-to-end encryption). Anyone trying to access your data would need the encrpytion key to decode it.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of VPN services available, for both computers and smartphones and tablets. Some of these are free, and some charge a small monthly fee, depending on the level of security offered. Even a basic, free VPN is better to have than no VPN at all!

Once the VPN is set up, all you need to do is log in to it from the device you want to protect, and then use the public Wi-Fi connection as you normally would to browse the internet, send emails, etc.

4 Install and Maintain Antivirus Software

Having a good Antivirus package installed is extremely important even if you only ever use your device in your own home, and even more important if you regularly use public Wi-Fi hotspots.

Many modern antivirus packages offer browser protection, helping you to identify malicious websites before you even click a single link on them. They also make it very hard for hackers to install malicious software on your device remotely by offering improved firewalls and malware scanning.

And it is not just enough to have antivirus installed. You also need to make sure that it is regularly updated with the latest malware definitions, so that it knows about the latest threats and is able to counter them effectively.

Some of the biggest names in Antivirus software include Norton, McAfee, Symantec, Bitdefender and Kaspersky, all of whom offer a range of packages for home and business. You can also find very good free software from the likes of AVG, Panda Security and Avast.

5 Use Only SSL Connections

Many of the biggest, most used websites now use SSL connections (particularly since Google suggested that websites not using the HTTPS protocol would be flagged as unsafe, and potentially appear lower in the search results).

As a general rule, even when not browsing through public Wi-Fi, any websites you use regularly, and that require you to log in or enter your credentials, should be set to “Always use HTTPS”. Most websites that ask for details about you have an HTTPS option somewhere in their account settings (if they don’t already force HTTPS across the site).

This might not seem as important on a videogame forum as it does on a banking website, but hackers are aware that people use the same passwords over and over again, so seemingly “safe” websites can be a goldmine of information about you for those clever enough to realise it.

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Russ Ware

Russ has been testing, reviewing and writing guides for tech since the heady days of Windows 95 and the Sega Saturn. A self-confessed (and proud) geek about all things tech, if it has LED's, a screen, beeps or has source code, Russ will want to master it (and very likely take it apart to see how it works...)

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