Public Wi-Fi is pretty common and many of us enjoy being able to go online in the airport, a hotel lobby or at trendy coffee shops. Convenient, yes – safe, not always. Not every public Wi-Fi hotspot provides the protection of a private home network, and it would be pretty unfortunate to be hacked or fall victim to identity theft if you aren’t paying attention to how you use such networks safely.
When you’re on public Wi-Fi, your computer is constantly passing information back and forth to the network, and anyone on the network, with the right skills, can take a look at your private information (like Google searches, email addresses and usernames). Not all public WiFi is created equal. Make sure you’re a savvy and safe user with these tips:
Turn off automatic Wi-Fi connections. Set your smartphone and computer so they only connect to networks you select, instead of allowing your devices to search for and connect to any available network. Make sure it’s a conscious choice to be on public Wi-Fi, and make sure you know when you’re using it.
A password is good, but it only does so much. You’ve probably heard the advice that a password-protected network is safer. Yes, in that only people with the password can use it. But if everyone at your local coffee shop has the password, everyone at the conference you’re attending, or everyone traveling through the airport does, you’re still wide-open to the public at large. There’s no hacker uniform that will let you know the guy 3 rows over at the conference is dangerous.
Turn off sharing and turn on your firewall. On most computers, you can set up file and computer sharing so that it’s available on your home or work networks, but disabled when you connect via public Wi-Fi.
For Windows: Control Panel > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center > Change Advanced Sharing Settings
For OS X: System Preferences > Sharing
Another important step is to keep your firewall turned on, which blocks unauthorized access to your computer while it’s on a network.
For Windows: Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Firewall
For OS X: System Preferences > Security & Privacy > Firewall
Limit what you do on public networks. If you took a look at the last tip and decided updating your security settings was too much trouble, this tip is especially important. When on a public Wi-Fi network, feel free to read the latest celebrity news or election results. But don’t send emails, type in passwords or credit card numbers, or access your bank account. Better to wait until you’re at home or work than get hacked.
Use secure connections. If you use secure web connections (the URLs start with https instead of http) and email protocols (you have SSL protection enabled in your settings), less information is shared with the Wi-Fi network you’re on. We still wouldn’t open our bank account, but we worry less about signing in to Facebook when we’re using https.
Use two-factor authentication wherever it’s available. Many banks now offer this service, and so do a growing number of websites. It won’t keep you from getting hacked, but it will help keep hackers out of your accounts. Here’s how it works: When you enter your username and password, the website immediately texts a one-time code to your phone. You enter the code, and you’re logged in. At the least, it will let you know if someone else is trying to get into your accounts.
Consider tethering your phone. Many smartphone plans now enable you to “tether” your phone to your computer or other devices, creating your own private network wherever you happen to be. You may have to pay for a little more data, but you will be sure that hackers can’t see what you’re doing.