If you want to go online while at a coffee shop, library, hotel, airport, restaurant, or another public place, you will likely need to use public WiFi. Before you click “connect,” there are many safety precautions you can take to surf the web securely using public WiFi.
Why public WiFi can be risky
If you connect to public WiFi without any security measures in place, you give hackers the opportunity to steal your identity and infect your device with malware. According to this article on GlobalSign.com, they are able to do so in two ways:
- Hackers intercept your data on the public WiFi network you are using
- Hackers create a fake WiFi hotspot that you connect to
When hackers intercept your data on public WiFi, they are able to view and capture all of your incoming and outgoing data, including login information, transactions, and sensitive information.
When hackers create a fake WiFi hotspot, they hope you will mistakenly connect to their fake network instead of a true network in the area. If you do so, they can install malware on your device, which can then broadcast your incoming and outgoing data.
While using public WiFi can be risky, there are many security measures you can take to prevent these risks and protect your data.
Security settings to enable
There are two security settings that are critical to your online security when using public WiFi and otherwise: firewall and antivirus. You should have both enabled always, but it’s best to double-check before you need to use a public network. In general, a firewall will protect your device from external threats while antivirus protects from internal and external threats. Together, they protect your device from malware and remove it if necessary.
Additional security measures
According to Norton, if you have the choice between an unsecured network and a secured network, always choose the secured network. Secured networks typically have a user agreement, password, or account creation process; these additional steps make using the public network safer. On the other hand, unsecured networks don’t have these additional steps. Regardless of which type of network you use, be sure to implement additional security measures, too.
Before you connect to public WiFi, review the network names. Often, fake hotspot names are obvious, but this isn’t always the case. To make things more complicated, some businesses have multiple WiFi networks, so it can be daunting to choose the right one. In the case that there are multiple networks you can connect to, ask an employee of the place you are at to verify the exact network name.
Before you start any online activities, turn on a VPN. VPNs encrypt your data and mask your IP address with its own IP address. However, it’s important to note that not all VPNs will protect you as well as others. Some free VPNs may protect you well, but if you use public networks often, you may want to invest in a paid option.
If you use public networks often, you may also want to set up two-factor authentication for the accounts you access on public WiFi. Doing so protects your accounts even if a hacker obtains your login credentials.
It’s also best to turn off file sharing, automatic connectivity, and Bluetooth connectivity before connecting to a public network.
Best practices for using public WiFi
Now that your device is set up to securely use public WiFi, here are a few best practices for what to do and what not to do while using public WiFi:
- Don’t go online shopping
- Don’t access bank accounts and other financial information
- Don’t access sensitive data
- Don’t leave your device unattended
- Do only visit encrypted sites (but be sure they’re authentic)
- Do be wary about using public devices
- Do be aware of “shoulder surfers”
- Do log out at the end of your session
- Do click “forget network” at the end of your session
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