How to protect yourself on public wi-fi

Getting online at the library, a coffee shop or a hotel is convenient, but what about security and privacy?

Anyone who is up to no good can monitor your activity on public wi-fi. Hackers easily get software that makes this possible. Your personal information, private documents, contacts, photos, even your login credentials can be seen. This information can be used to access your accounts, impersonate you or steal your identity.

Public wi-fi includes open networks (which don’t require a password) and semi-open networks (which do, but anyone can log on).

Take precautions

  • If possible, wait until you can use a network you know is secure to check email or do online banking or shopping. They all involve sending passwords and personal information.
  • When you do use public wi-fi, check that you are connecting to the correct network. A coffee shop’s wi-fi may be named espresso1, but someone could have set up a false wi-fi and named it freecoffee. If you login to freecoffee, all your information will flow through the hacker’s computer.
  • Look for https in the address bar. This means that the site is encrypted. A hacker can still intercept your information, but it will now be harder to read and use. Every page of a website should be encrypted. If you find yourself on an unencrypted page, log out right away.
  • Change your computer’s wi-fi settings to public and turn off file sharing.
  • Limit your time. Stay logged into wi-fi only while you need it.
  • Sign out of accounts. Log out when you are done.
  • Keep your computer and security software up to date. Pay attention to warnings that a site is unsafe.
  • Do not use the same passwords for different websites. If someone gains access to one of your accounts, they won’t have access to your other accounts.
  • Consider changing settings so your mobile device does not automatically connect to wi-fi.
  • Your phone’s cellular data is much more secure than public wi-fi. If in doubt use cellular.

VPN

If you regularly access online accounts through wi-fi hotspots, using a virtual private network (VPN) may be a good idea. VPNs encrypt traffic between your computer and the internet, even on unsecured networks. You can get a personal VPN account from a VPN service provider. Some organizations create VPNs to provide secure, remote access for their employees. VPN options are also available for mobile devices; they can encrypt information you send through mobile apps.

More resources

Tips for Using Public Wi-Fi Networks (Federal Trade Commission) 

VPN Beginner's Guide (The Best VPN) 
 


 

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