If you have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, chances are at some point or another during your day, you wind up on a public Wi-Fi network. While the convenience of these Wi-Fi hotspots definitely can’t be overstated, it’s important to realize that using them comes with risks, just like with anything else.
Being on public Wi-Fi is a lot like using a public parking lot. It’s convenient, and it’s often free. However, you run the risk of having people there that will abuse the system, and put you and what’s yours at risk. Just like a burglar can break into your car and swipe your speakers, a hacker can get into your connection and steal your personal information.
A Simple Mistake with Major Consequences
With the digital age advancing exponentially, and new technology connecting everything from our fitness plans to our bank accounts, the threat grows. Identity theft and fraud have quickly soared to the top of the charts as the number one crimes in the world, and people are constantly falling victim.
The lasting effects of these crimes are complex, and even life-altering. People that lose their personal information to identity thieves can face years of financial struggles repairing their credit as loans and credit cards are taken out in their name, and even legal troubles if the thief commits other crimes posing under their information.
The risk of doing something as simple as checking your credit score on public Wi-Fi can be devastating, and frankly, just aren’t worth the risks. The real trouble with these types of crimes is that they are so incredibly difficult to resolve – it can take years, legal counsel, and tons of documentation to prove you are you, and lives are frequently turned upside down as a result.
But let’s be realistic here. Even if you’re not a traveling businessman, most of us use public Wi-Fi networks out of sheer necessity. Keeping on top of work projects with cloud computing, managing schedules and appointments, and moving our money to where we need it is all just a part of everyday life for a lot of us now. Fortunately, the lack of security over public connections can be overcome.
VPNs - The Most Comprehensive SolutionThe easiest and most straightforward way to take back your privacy, while still taking advantage of the convenience of public networks, is by using a VPN.
VPNs, or virtual private networks, are essentially encrypted tunnels in the internet, provided by a host company for a small monthly subscription fee. Your connection is routed to one of the company’s secure servers, and your IP address is blocked to prevent geo-blocking and tracking.
With military-grade encryption, and software that is very user-friendly, most VPNs are more than secure enough to protect you on a public Wi-Fi network. There are even settings built into many of them that automatically set up your secure connection when you power up your device.
Despite how sophisticated all of this may sound, VPNs are incredibly simple to use, and offer a type of protection that is ideal for anyone that travels, or frequently has to use a public network. They’re so secure in fact, that they can even protect your privacy from government agencies designed specifically to invade it, like the NSA. An encrypted tunnel means that no one is seeing your activity but you, and IP address blocking adds a whole new level of anonymity to browsing.
Taking Matters into Your Own HandsThere are other very simple ways you can protect yourself on public networks that don’t involve software downloads and monthly fees. One easy thing you can do is check your device’s sharing settings. It’s surprisingly easy to access your device’s information and connection if the sharing settings allow other users to remotely login, so go into your settings and check each category to make sure that everything is secure and private.
One major sharing setting you’ll want to adjust is called Network Discovery. Basically, it allows other users on the same network to see that your device is also accessing it, and can offer you up on a silver platter as a target. Turn this setting off so other users can’t see you’re connected.
Of course, you can also tap into your device’s built-in security settings and turn on your Firewall. Many gadgets automatically keep this feature on, but double check it before logging on to a public network. It’s a pretty basic measure, but it can help keep prying eyes from gaining access to your connection.
What Kind of Sites are You Visiting?Though it may be a bit more of a roundabout way of protecting your security, you can also keep username and password combinations much more secure by only accessing https websites. These sites encrypt your data on the way to their servers, so your information is much less likely to get swiped on the way.
Sites secured with https or SSL will have a padlock icon displayed next to their URL, so keep an eye out for that when you’re online. If you’re unable to use any of the other security measures mentioned here, at least make sure that that little icon is present before entering any personal information over the connection.
Default to Secure
Rather than always worrying about adjusting these security settings when the opportunity to connect publicly is there, you may want to consider making them the default for your device. In doing so, you may limit your device’s connectivity at times on your home network, but you’ll never have to worry about forgetting to adjust those sharing settings, which can be so detrimental to your security over a public network.