Public WiFi is available in more places than ever before. You can log on while at the local coffee shop, doctor’s office, on the train, and at the airport. Local governments and cable companies are even starting to offer free WiFi in some locations.
The convenience is undeniable, especially for the ability to work remotely, but this freedom to connect can also present a security risk if you don’t know who else is connecting to the same public WiFi network. By surfing the web for free without adequate protections, you could be allowing hackers on the same network to intercept your data — essentially “hijacking” it — or put your device itself at risk.
These risks don’t mean that you should stop using public WiFi entirely. There are immense benefits to being able to connect to work or home on the go. Before you plug in the free password at your favorite coffee shop, it’s worth taking a few simple steps to protect yourself from these types of attacks and ensure your personal or corporate data is kept secure.
Verify your network
Start by verifying the network itself. It’s easy for an attacker to create a bogus WiFi network, perhaps with a name that sounds like the one you may be looking for, to ensnare victims. A straightforward way to verify this is with an employee of the establishment — check you’re connecting to the right network before you plug in the password or even compare its IP address.
It’s also always better to stick with the most reputable option — maybe the Starbucks WiFi instead of a random public network that may happen to be available, but that you aren’t sure of the source. Also, before you hit “Agree,” it’s worth reading through the Terms and Conditions to understand how the vendor is using your browsing data.
Utilize security tools
For an added level of protection, many users opt to use a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to free public WiFi. A VPN works by extending a private network across a public network, essentially replicating a direct connection to the private network. It can also, in some cases, layer on additional security protections like encryption. What does this all mean? Essentially, while you’re connecting to a public WiFi network, you’re protected like it’s a private one.
There are many choices for VPNs out there. It’s worth taking the time to find a reputable choice, as some are more secure than others. Check out an independent review site or ask a security professional which one they would recommend before purchasing.
Stay aware of your surroundings
When surfing the internet, try to browse with “HTTPS” sites, which means they are encrypted and therefore better secured against attack (instead of “HTTP” sites, which are unprotected). Try also to avoid or turn off file sharing — such as AirDrop or other similar file and print sharing services — which allow other nearby users or users on the same network to easily share potentially malicious files.
Even with all these protections in place, it’s always best practice to assume that attackers are watching. Consider waiting until you get home before logging into your bank or sensitive corporate accounts or even entering information like your email, credit card account or social security number.
These steps are by no means comprehensive, but they can help make an inherently insecure connection, like public WiFi, a bit more secure.
That way, you can enjoy the benefits of connection on the go, without the worry of compromising your personal or corporate data.