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How To Protect Yourself On Public Wi-Fi

Even in the age of fast cellular networks, public WiFi is hard to give up. Public WiFi, or open WiFi networks, are accessible at any Starbucks and many other public establishments. These public networks offer a couple of advantages over cellular networks: they don’t affect your data cap, and you can access them on your laptop or another device that may not support cellular connectivity.

However, public WiFi has one major drawback, and that’s security. “Public” means accessible to anyone, including hackers. Public networks, unlike your home network, are unencrypted, allowing anyone to connect without a passphrase. Because they are unencrypted, they’re an attractive place for hackers to lurk nearby and intercept data from unsuspecting users. Fortunately, there are several ways to thwart hackers and keep your data secure.

First, you should update your operating system and applications, particularly your web browser. This is good general advice for all security scenarios and applies here. Updated software not only quashes bugs and adds new features but also plugs known security holes which give hackers an open door to your data. Set your software to update automatically or frequently check for updates to ensure you’re on the latest versions.

Next, activate your system’s firewall and disable all file sharing to harden your device against intruders. On macOS, firewall settings are found in System Preferences > Security & Privacy and file-sharing settings are in System Preferences > Sharing. Mac users should also disable Airdrop by clicking it in the Finder and, from the popup menu for “Allow me to be discovered by:,” choose “No One.” In Windows, firewall settings are in Control Panel > System and Security and file sharing are in Control Panel > Network and Internet. Under Network and Internet, Windows users will also want to disable printer sharing and network discovery.

Hardening phones is a bit simpler. On iOS, disable Airdrop by going to Settings > General > Airdrop and tap “Receiving Off.” For Android phones, it’s best to install anti-malware software that will enhance your overall security and detect any spyware or trojans.

Now you’re ready to connect to public WiFi, but don’t just choose any available network. Hackers can set up their own “honeypot” networks to lure in unsuspecting users. They may call their networks “Free Starbucks” or “Airport WiFi,” but such official-sounding networks are not necessarily the real ones. Always check with the business or establishment for the name of their official network before connecting.

Once you’re connected and browsing the Web, it’s a simple matter of understanding the difference between HTTP and HTTPS. Sites with HTTP in their URL are not encrypted, and that data can be read by any hacker in the vicinity. Sites with HTTPS, on the other hand, are encrypted, preventing hackers from reading any of the data. Some browsers hide the HTTP or HTTPS part of the URL in the address bar, but they will display a green lock icon when a site is encrypted with HTTPS. Using HTTPS sites on Public WiFi is essential if you want to keep your data private, like when logging into Facebook or Paypal, for instance.

There is one big caution when browsing with HTTPS. Links in email or on a website may not take you where you think they’re taking you. Hackers can plant false links with slight misspellings or even completely renamed anchor links that take you to a spoof site designed to steal your login name and password. For this reason, never click on a link when connecting to sensitive sites such as banking or shopping sites. Always manually type the URL or use your own bookmark.

If HTTPS browsing isn’t enough for your needs, you can get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt all your Internet data. This will not only protect your Web browsing but also your data in all applications such as email and FTP clients, which are otherwise unencrypted. Some VPNs are free, others charge modest subscriptions of varying lengths (as short as one day), but some are better than others. It’s wise to read the reviews before subscribing to such a service.

Public WiFi is often called a cesspool, and this is correct. That doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands and avoid it. Using simple precautions as those mentioned above, you can stay one step ahead of the hackers and turn their day of spying into a day of frustration. So enjoy your coffee or your stay in an airport lounge free of the fear that your private information will fall into some crook’s hands. Your information is yours, and you have the power to keep it that way.