Public Wi-Fi may be free and convenient, but there are some safety measures you should take before connecting.
Whether you’re toting around a smartphone, tablet or laptop, there’s already a few things to be concerned with, such as keeping them powered up so they’re ready for use, accidentally leaving them behind in the back of an Uber or dropping them on the ground (face down, no less).
Now you can add one more concern: free public Wi-Fi networks that leave you vulnerable to cyberthieves.
Called “hotspots,” these wireless networks — often supplied by a coffee shop, hotel lobby or airport — are considerably less secure than your own private connection at home. Tech-savvy criminals can take advantage of this fact and will try to steal (or lock and then extort) your information for financial gain, so it’s recommended not to use them.
Most Canadians, however, will trade security for convenience — not to mention free is free — so if you’re going to continue to use public Wi-Fi, the following tips should dramatically reduce the odds of any setback.
1. Have good anti-malware
First things first: it’s essential to have good cybersecurity protection on all your devices, as they can detect, quarantine, delete and report anything suspicious. This software runs in the background until it needs to tell you about something.
Most will perform routine scans of your computer or mobile device and will update itself with the latest protection against threats. Personally, I use ESET Internet Security on my Windows PCs, and Android phone and tablet (it watches what you download from the Google Play store, too).
Mac users, you’re not immune to attacks. You also need good security software.
2. Be selective, be smart
Be sure you’re joining the right Wi-Fi connection. Sure, a network called StarbucksFreeWiFi might seem innocent enough, but it can be a classic “man-in-the-middle” attack used by hackers to dupe you into logging in to steal your info. In other words, this could be a rogue network, out to look legit, that you’re joining instead of the real one.
Instead, find out the official name of the legitimate Wi-Fi network from the barista.
Another consideration when joining a hotspot is to choose a secured network — often seen with a lock icon next to the network name — instead of a non-secured network.
In some cases, the Wi-Fi network will look like it’s unlocked but will require a password to type in once you open a browser. This is also fine, as a network that requires a password is better than one without.
Also, when you join a network, make sure you don’t enable any “file sharing” your device might suggest.
3. Remain suspicious or go private
While it sounds like a no-brainer, always assume what you do on a public network might be seen by someone else. Therefore, use free Wi-Fi for things like reading the news or streaming music. But be weary of tasks like reading private email, banking, or online shopping.
If you must perform these activities, look for a secured connection in a web browser, such as a little padlock or the letters “SSL” or “HTTPS” in the URL window (instead of “HTTP”).
Even better than joining a seemingly secured Wi-Fi network is to bring your own. If you’ve got a healthy data plan, use your own smartphone as a “personal hotspot” for things like email and banking.
4. Use a VPN
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, provides a safer way to use the Internet because it conceals your online identity.
Instead of surfing the Internet openly — say, while using a hotel’s free Wi-Fi network — VPN software uses encryption technology to ensure your surfing session is done anonymously, protecting you from those who want to know what you’re doing online. VPN changes your computer’s IP address to hide your real location as well.
5. Miscellaneous tips
A few other suggestions to remaining cybersafe while on the go:
- Remember to back-up your important information and other data on a regular basis — at least weekly — just in case something happens to your computer or mobile device.
- Use strong passwords, which are at least seven characters long, has a combination of letters, numbers and symbols, and mixes upper and lower cases. Some experts say it’s just as effective to use a passphrase, such as a line from a song, like “itsashortlifeyeah!” (from Drake’s “Nice For What”)
- Wherever possible, opt for two-step verification, which requires not only a password to log in, but also a one-time-use code sent to your mobile phone, to confirm it’s really you.
- If it’s not set up to do it automatically, download the latest free software updates for your Windows or Mac operating system.