Public Wi-Fi is a great convenience that most of us – if not all of us – utilize regularly. There is little doubt, however, that using public Wi-Fi creates serious cybersecurity risks. At the same time, cybersecurity practitioners who preach that people should refrain from using public Wi-Fi are about as likely to succeed in their effort as someone telling people to abandon insecure computers and instead use un-hackable typewriters. As such, here are 9 suggestions as to how to use public Wi-Fi safely:
1. Turn off Wi-Fi on your mobile devices when you are not using Wi-Fi and do not want to use it. This will prevent you from unknowingly connecting to a network with the same name as one to which you have previously connected. Criminals are known to set up access points with names similar to popular public Wi-Fi networks – in an effort to get unsuspecting people to connect to poisoned networks that route their victims to phony sites or distribute malware to connected devices. As an added bonus, turning off Wi-Fi will also conserve battery power.
2. Do not perform sensitive tasks over public Wi-Fi. Do not bank online or shop online from such connections. If you need to perform a task of that sort, turn off Wi-Fi and use your cellular connection. If you don’t have a cellular connection on your computer or tablet, consider “tethering” the non-cellular device to your cellphone (allowing the device to use your cellphone’s connection by connecting them with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) – there are apps that enable you do this, and your cellular provider can often instruct you how to do so as well.
3. Consider using a VPN service. If you cannot use a cellular connection and must use the Wi-Fi connection for a sensitive task, consider using a VPN service; doing so adds several security benefits. There many popular VPN services – Google and choose the one that best fits your needs.
4. Use encryption. Many popular sites offer HTTPS access in addition to HTTP. It is especially important to use HTTPS whenever you use a public Wi-Fi network – doing so prevents other users on the network from seeing the content of your communications.
5. Turn off sharing. If you are using a computer or device that shares any of its resources, turn off any and all shares before connecting to the public Wi-Fi.
6. Make sure you have information security software on any devices that will be connected to public Wi-Fi networks. For computers this means security packages that include both anti-virus and personal firewall capabilities; there are other packages designed specifically for smartphones and tablets. And, of course, make sure that the security software is up to date before connecting to public Wi-Fi.
7. Consider using Tor. If you don’t want your browsing history to be tracked by anyone, consider browsing using Tor. The Tor Browser Bundle bounces your communications through many servers and makes tracking exceedingly difficult. There are also Tor browsers for Android devices. There is a tradeoff, however; Tor will slow down your communications.
8. Do not reset passwords when using public Wi-Fi. If you can, avoid resetting passwords in a public location regardless of whether or not you are using Wi-Fi.
9. Understand the difference between true public Wi-Fi, and shared Wi-Fi. There is usually a much lower risk of being mis-routed to phony sites or of malware being delivered to your device if you use the password-protected guest network at a client site, for example, than if you use unprotected free Wi-Fi offered by a public library. That does not mean that you should fully trust the network; other guests at the site still pose risks.