Can We Really Trust Public Wi-Fi?

With news of massive hacks costing large companies millions in lost revenues and fines appearing in the news quite regularly, you’re probably fully aware by now of a secret underground of career criminals called hackers who take a fiendish delight in breaking into computers and stealing sensitive information. While a few work individually, like pickpockets, many work in gangs, like the organized crime syndicates of the Mafia.

Consequently, as either a business owner or an employee, you are probably aware of how important it is to protect your company’s tech from a hack attack, but have you considered how vulnerable you might be as an individual when you use public computers or public Wi-Fi in a hotel or library or coffee shop?

Although the idea behind providing Public Wi-Fi is a benevolent one, a generous way to share resources with patrons of an establishment, it’s not as safe as you might believe.

7 Ways to Stay Safe

So rather than worrying about security when you’re using Public Wi-Fi, here are 7 suggestions on how to stay safe and enjoy the convenience of Public Wi-Fi:

  1. Use flash key encryption to protect your data with a customized encrypted PIN and plug-and- play functionality.
  2. Turn off your network discovery feature because this will prevent others from even noticing your laptop on the network.
  3. Turn off your sharing feature. This will be on to share files and printers and logins from other computers in your home or office network.
  4. Enable your firewall protection. While the Public Wi Fi may already be providing you with this type of protection, turn yours on as an added safety precaution.
  5. If you are doing work on your computer that does not need immediate online access, such as writing a blog post on Word or creating a budget on Excel, then turn off the Public Wi-Fi. In Windows, right click on the wireless icon that you will see in your menu bar to turn it off. On a Mac select the AirPort option to turn off after you have clicked on the Wi-Fi icon.
  6. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is a service that lets you route all your online activities through a secure and private network. You’re cocooned in a private network while using the public one. Simply do a search for one on Google. CyberGhost is a popular, free one with an excellent reputation. Once you’ve installed it on your computer, you can turn it on whenever you need to use Public Wi-Fi.
  7. Whenever possible, be sure to use HTTPS and SSL. HTTPS may not be necessary when just accessing general information on a website but it’s important to use when accessing private information on, say, an email client. The purpose of HTTPS is to encrypt the data that passes between your computer and the web server. Many sites like Gmail do it automatically, while others allow you to add the “s” to “http” when you’re exchanging information on a website. In other words, they only offer support if you type it in. Similarly, SSL encrypts your data as you exchange information with a web server on the Internet and it is often used when buying something online or accessing your financial records on your banking website.

Are Such Precautions Really Necessary?

You may feel that these precautions are unnecessary. You might be led to assume you are safe when you use a password to access the free network because this means that you’re getting firewall protection. However, although you’re getting firewall protection from cybercriminals lurking on the Internet, you’re still sharing a network with other people. If you’re accessing it in a large public library, hotel, train station, or commuter train, you may be sharing it with hundreds of other people. Someone sharing this network in this crowd of strangers may have the malicious intent to steal usernames and passwords and spy on what others are doing on their laptops.

While one solution might be to simply avoid taking advantage of Public Wi-Fi, this is not a practical idea as you may have to work on your laptop when you’re away from your home or office.

Use Public Wi Fi with Caution

In summary, it’s fine to use Public Wi-Fi if you do it with some caution. It’s not only convenient, but it’s ubiquitous. By understanding the risks and taking precautions, you can still enjoy the convenience they offer. If possible, try to limit your selection of activities that can cause the least damage.

For instance, when using Public Wi-Fi, it’s fine to read your favorite blog post, but don’t read your email if it’s not necessary or do your online banking when you can do it more safely at home. According to an article in USA Today by Kevin Clark, an expert in fighting cybercrime, “Public Wi-Fi is inherently unsecure. Anyone using it ought to do so with the premise that everything you do is visible to a third-party stranger with access to that hot spot. The chances of you being hacked far exceeds the chances of your home being burglarized. This is a big business.”

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