Public WiFi is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Many coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses now offer it as a necessary competitive incentive to draw and hold customers who want to be able to access the internet wherever they happen to be. The convenience is great as are the risks.
Even when public WiFi spots are secured using either WEP, WPA or (more ideally) WPA-2 technology, they remain vulnerable to attack and theft of data due to the number of people being able to access the WiFi signal at the same time. There are many things a laptop or Smart Phone user can do to help reduce the risk of being ‘hacked.’ Some are technically sophisticated and complex while others are more straightforward for a non-technician to use.
Here are some particularly helpful ways to strengthen the security of your own device and data while using any public WiFi service:
1. Disable the automatic WiFi network feature of your device and select “Manual” control. Sometimes, hackers create ‘look-alike’ WiFi home pages and parallel signals to fool users into using their equipment which is, of course, set up to steal data from you. Be sure you know the correct and complete name of the WiFi service you are trying to connect to (in a store, ask the staff for the complete name) and set your connection to that signal and to that signal only.
2. Be sure your security software is up-to-date. If you have software that does not update automatically, you are advised to update it daily. Then, get better software ASAP. Most security software brings up on-screen warnings when something untoward is beginning to happen. Never ignore these warnings. To do so will imperil your security.
3. If you are going to provide private data (credit card information, etc.) to a web site, check for two things first. On the address bar, the URL should begin with the letters HTTPS. The ‘S’ stands for secure. Most common web sites begin without the ‘S’ with the standard HTTP which indicates the lack of encrypted security. As a second check, usually near the bottom or top right of a secure/encrypted page, the image of a closed lock will appear. If the page address (URL) does not begin with HTTPS and/or if that closed lock does not appear, provide no private information and close the page right away.
4. Change your passwords every so often. This is tough for some people who prefer the ease of using one familiar password for everything all the time. The longer one uses the same password, the greater the chances that it will be picked up by someone who should not have it and be misused.
There is a large and growing body of information about these and other, more sophisticated safety measures. If you use public WiFi regularly, checking out some further information may be of great value to you.
These precautions, none of which take any special technical skill to use, do not guarantee that you will be safe from hackers and identity thieves when using public WiFi, but they certainly will reduce the odds of YOU being the one whose device is hacked and data is stolen.
The few extra minutes it takes to do these things will be time well spent.