In this modern world, we strive on always being connected. This means, when running low on data, we will often connect to public WiFi to allow us to stay connected with family and friends. Public WiFi may not always be safe. These tips will help you in staying secure when using public WiFi.
If it is at all possible, the safest option is to increase your data on your mobile phone plan, and use this as a portable hotspot. Another option would be to purchase a portable hotspot that you use rather than public WiFi. This way you are always connected to your own trusted network.
Before connecting a device to public WiFi, always ensure the integrity of the connection. Ask a member of staff, such as reception at a Motel, or wait staff at a coffee shop or restaurant for the correct SSID. The SSID is the name of the wireless network. There will often be many WiFi networks available. It would make sense that the SSID would match the business name, but this is not always the case. A malicious actor may also be running a wireless network, possibly with a similar name. This network could be designed to snoop on traffic being sent and received and to harvest user’s information and credentials.
A coffee shop offering free WiFi might name their network “CoffeeShop”. A malicious actor may have set up a malicious WiFi access point called “CoffeeShopFreeWIFI”. It is impossible to tell the correct network without first asking.
Your device will connect to previously connected WiFi automatically. This can be dangerous. You may inadvertently connect to public WiFi, and not take any precautions such as checking for HTTPS or using a VPN. It is a good idea to “forget” a network once you have finished using it and reconnect manually the next time you need it.
When using public WiFi, ensure all websites are using HTTPS. HTTPS is the secure form of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). HTTPS is used to secure information between your device and the webserver. This allows you to securely log into a website, as your credentials are sent encrypted to the server. HTTPS is also important when entering credit card details. HTTPS also stops anyone trying to intercept traffic from seeing the pages you are viewing. This doesn’t make you anonymous. Internet Service Providers and the Webhost may be able to see websites you visit and information about your device. HTTPS makes it harder for anyone to intercept any data you send or receive to the server.
HTTP is sent in plain text. Meaning anyone else on the network can potentially view data coming from your device to the website. This information could be credit cards, passwords, and the pages you a visiting. This leaves you open to having your online accounts breached, sensitive information leaked, or credit card details stolen.
Your email password and contents of the email can also be leaked when using public WiFi. Ensure your email service uses SSL/TLS. Your service provider can assist with these settings. Services such as Hotmail and Gmail are encrypted to protect your data. Service provider emails, such as Bigpond or Westnet have not always been encrypted. You could still be connecting to your service provider email unencrypted.
HTTPS Everywhere is a browser plugin that forces HTTPS site wide when available. It is free and I recommend everyone install it whether you are using public WiFi or not. It is available for most desktop web browsers. Mobile device users may like to check out Brave, and alternative web browser with a tool like HTTPS Everywhere built in.
HTTPS Everywhere can also be configure to block HTTP connections. This would mean you cannot connect to a website that doesn’t offer HTTPS. Which might be impractical for some users.
If you are connecting to public WiFI, or work away from your trusted network regularly, I highly recommend purchasing a VPN. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) creates an encrypted tunnel from your device to the VPN server. Connections to HTTP websites, that would be easily intercepted by an attacker on a WiFI network are now sent via the encrypted tunnel. This stops anyone from intercepting data on WiFi. HTTP data from the VPN to the webserver would not be encrypted and once it leaves the VPN server. Anyone upstream could possible intercept this data, but the malicious actor in the coffee shop would not see this data.
Free VPNs should be avoided, as these could be as malicious as someone trying to intercept your data over WiFI.