Since public Wi-Fi became available, it has been a security threat. As convenient as it might be to connect your device to the internet in the airport or the coffee shop, when you do so, you are also connecting to every other device on that network. As a result, it is incredibly easy for bad actors to get access to your device, where they can install malware, pilfer sensitive data and more. This is why so many security experts for so many years have discouraged you from taking advantage of public Wi-Fi networks, especially the free ones.
Fortunately, it is possible to have it both ways: to use public Wi-Fi and stay secure, too. Here are a few strategies for connecting to public networks while keeping your devices and data safe.
Verify the Network
Not every network you see out in the world is a legitimate public network. Just because you see an unsecured network while you are in a coffee shop doesn’t mean that network is offered by the coffee shop. In fact, plenty of bad actors create public networks in places where users are likely to discover them with the intention of accessing and infiltrating users’ devices.
Thus, the first step to using a public network without undue risk is verifying that the network you are about to use is legitimate. You should find a worker at the location — like a barista or a person at a customer service desk — and ask for the details of the public Wi-Fi. They should provide you with a network name, a password and any other information you might need, like whether the connection requires payment or not. You might ask them to write down the exact details, so you don’t log onto a similar-looking network by mistake.
Use a VPN
A virtual private network, or VPN, is a tool you can use to shield your device and data from prying eyes. When you log onto the internet using a VPN, you are sending your data to the VPN’s servers before it goes online; the VPN encrypts your data and gives your device a new IP address, so anyone who might be searching for your data or device won’t be able to find it. This is especially useful when you are utilizing a public Wi-Fi network because it means that other users on the network won’t be able to discover your device or steal your data.
Anyone can take advantage of a secure VPN; it doesn’t take a tech wizard. Typically, a VPN looks like an application or browser add-on that you turn on to keep your device safe while you are connected to the web. Some browsers come with free VPN services, but if you are frequently accessing public Wi-Fi, you should invest in a quality VPN of your own, which involves paying a low monthly fee to a VPN provider.
Install Security Software
Even when you use a VPN, you should have security software on your device. A VPN doesn’t protect you from all online threats. For example, you might accidentally download malware by clicking on the wrong link, or malware might be hiding in software you acquired from a third-party website while connected to public Wi-Fi. You might not recognize the signs of a malware infection, and you probably won’t be able to stop it without security tools already on your device.
Security software constantly monitors your device for irregular activity that might indicate someone or something is launching an attack against you and your data. Anti-malware and anti-ransomware tools can then isolate malicious programs before they do harm. The last thing you want while you are out and about is a malware infection, so having security software already installed on your device is critical if you are going to be browsing the web on public networks.
Develop Cyber Hygiene
Cyber hygiene is a set of skills that will keep you, your devices and your data safe, regardless of where and when you connect to the internet. Some important elements of cyber hygiene you should practice to keep you safer on public Wi-Fi include:
Use strong passwords. You can use a password checking tool to determine whether your codes are strong enough to thwart attackers.
Stay logged out of sensitive websites. Social media, online banking and other places where important information is stored shouldn’t be accessed on public networks.
Rely on your phone network. If you need to do something that involves sensitive data, like online banking, you should use your mobile network instead of a public Wi-Fi connection.
Public Wi-Fi can be risky, but it can be a useful resource when you are often on the go. As long as you know how to keep your devices and data safe, you can use public networks without fear.