Using public WiFi: How to keep your personal data safe 1

Using public WiFi: How to keep your data safe

Public WiFi is everywhere – whether you’re riding a train or a tram, waiting at an airport or sitting at in cafe, there is no shortage of public hotspots that you can connect to.

Using these hotspots is a great way to reduce your mobile data usage or access the internet on devices without 3G/4G capabilities.

Public WiFi is in high demand, with the number of UK hotspots predicted to reach 14 million by 2018.

But the tech comes with its own risks and pitfalls. Without the proper precautions, your personal data, passwords and files are easy pickings for tech-savvy criminals.

The good news is that the majority of attackers can be effectively deterred with just a few simple steps.

Check the network is secure and password-protected

If you connect to a hotspot and don’t need to input a password, there’s a good chance you’re connecting to an unsecured network and putting yourself at risk.

‘Spoofed’ routers can log all the data sent and received by your device and make computers vulnerable to direct attacks.

These malicious hotspots often give misleading names to mimic trusted WiFi sources, so always double check the name of the network when you’re first connecting.

Turn off automatic WiFi connections

You can’t check the networks you’re connecting to if your device is automatically connecting without your knowledge.

Automatically connecting may seem convenient, but the convenience isn’t worth the risk of inadvertently connecting with a spoofed router.

Your device may have the ability to only automatically connect to ‘known networks’ – networks that you have previously accessed manually by inputting a password. Using public WiFi: How to keep your personal data safe

This is a useful way to quickly connect to networks you know to be safe (such as your home and office WiFi), without accidentally connecting to unsecured hotspots. If your device is lacking this feature, it is best to just turn off automatic connections and only connect manually.

One other option is to disable the WiFi on your device completely when you aren’t using it. Doing this will ensure complete security, but it’s an easy thing to forget to do, so it’s recommended that you still disable automatic WiFi connections.

Use a firewall

A firewall is a piece of software that intercepts malicious data before it does any damage, acting as a filter between you and the network you’re connecting to.

Almost all computer operating systems, including Windows, Linux and Mac OS come with a firewall installed, although there are many other free and premium alternatives.

Smartphones can benefit from a firewall as an added layer of protection. They’re especially useful if you are running apps downloaded outside Google Play Store or the App Store.

Make sure sensitive websites are secured by HTTPS

If a web page is securely encrypted then the address bar in your browser will begin with ‘https://’ or display a locked padlock icon – your browser may even warn you when you are accessing an unencrypted site.

A https page uses additional security protocols to ensure that anyone trying to intercept or listen in on your connection will receive nothing but meaningless encrypted nonsense.

Any time you are entering a password or other login details to a website without https, you are risking those details being stolen. Never input a password to any unsecured website when using a public network. It may even be a good idea to avoid tasks like internet banking on a public network altogether.

Use a VPN

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) adds additional security and privacy to your internet connection by acting as a ‘middle-man’ in your connection.

When you use a VPN, all of your internet traffic is routed through a secure server before being encrypted and sent to you.

This effectively makes all of your online activity unreadable for hackers, spoofed routers and even your ISP. Because everything you are doing is being encrypted, unsecure websites instantly become completely safe and anyone intercepting your connection to public WiFi will only see encrypted data.

There are many VPN services available, both for computers and mobile devices, so there are plenty to choose between. Premium VPNs will deliver a better service than the free alternatives, but using either will massively improve your online security.

Turn off file sharing

If you’ve set any files to be ‘shared’ or activated ‘AirDrop’ on an Apple device, make sure that these features are turned off before accessing a public WiFi network.

If left on, anybody can view and copy the files that you’re sharing. This is a relatively small security risk, but the idea of a stranger browsing through your personal photos is certainly unsettling.

For the extra-paranoid there are extra measures you can take, like using Tor, or staying away from
public WiFi entirely. But unless you’re keeping state secrets or highly precious business data on your smartphone, these measures are probably a little excessive.

Simply following the points above will let you use public WiFi with confidence and security.


Samuel Newman is a consumer journalist and blogger based in Sheffield.
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