Public WiFi hotspots have become an integral part of our lives. We rarely even slow down to think before using a free hotspot in a café or restaurant while relaxing with a cup of coffee or while waiting for in a mall or some other place. It is convenient, it is free, it lets us maintain a connection with the world without having to deal with the infuriatingly slow mobile Internet. What’s not to like? As it turns out, despite being purportedly free, all of these advantages do come at a price — the constant risk subjected to you and your personal data every time you use a public WiFi hotspot.
You should understand that you aren’t just magically connected to the Internet — you exchange traffic with websites and services you use — and open, unencrypted WiFi networks are basically open for any marginally skilled hacker to snoop around. One doesn’t even have to have any special knowledge — there are plenty of tools that allow one to do it without any technical know-how whatsoever. Even worse, hackers may set up their own WiFi hotspot to collect data from those who connect to it. They don’t even have to actively do anything and you will give them your data by yourself. And unlike with data loss, you can’t simply use a file recovery program to reverse the situation quickly. Once your data is stolen, you will have a hard time dealing with the consequences.
You can, of course, buy a portable WiFi hotspot device and literally carry your Internet connection around yourself — but this comes with its own set of problems and security risks. For instance, you will have to think about enabling strong encryption and changing your hotspot’s SSID.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Let’s take a look at the most important security tactics.
1. Always behave as if your connection is being monitored
The only network you can more or less fully trust is the one you have at home. Never believe any other network to be entirely safe. When you connect to the Internet using any public WiFi hotspot, act as if you were sure that all your traffic is being monitored by third parties, and that these third parties are up to no good. Therefore, never under any circumstances enter any private information: logins to websites and services, email passwords and so on. Be doubly paranoid if it is anything to deal with finances.
2. Disable automatic WiFi connection
Most smartphones are by default set to connect to nearby unencrypted WiFi networks automatically to provide you with a seamless Internet connection. As a result, you may find your personal data bleeding out even if you don’t actively provide any input — for example, your email app may try to download your messages and send out your authentication info. To prevent this from happening, disable this setting and set your devices to “Ask to connect” — this way you will be able to make a decision manually before connecting. It is best not to allow the device to connect even to the known networks automatically — you can never know when you run into a phishing network sharing its name with a safe one you regularly use.
3. Be on the lookout for fake network names
One of the most common tactics used by hackers is so-called Wi-Phishing: setting up a WiFi hotspot trap with a name that is similar or identical to a legitimate network you expect to find where you are located (for example, in a café). You connect to the network without a second thought, use it to login into one of your services, and voila — your data is collected by hackers. To avoid this, make sure you always use the right network. Ask an employee if there is any doubt — they should be familiar with the problem.
4. Close apps you aren’t currently using
Many apps tend to go online automatically to update their information if they find an Internet connection. Again, if it turns out that at that moment you happen to be connected to an unsafe network, your login information may be stolen. Therefore, the fewer apps you have running in the background, the less is the likelihood of something going wrong.
5. Stick to secure networks
When choosing a network to connect to, try choosing the one that keeps you locked out. They usually are marked by a lock icon and require a password to access to them – so go out and find out this password. If WiFi provider (be it a café, a conference, a hotel, or any other organization) provides you with a specific network to use and a password to access it, it means that at the very least you know which network you are currently using. If the network in question doesn’t lock you out, it means that it has zero security and you should steer clear of it.
6. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
In this day and age this should go without saying, yet according to a recent Norton’s study, about 75 percent of users don’t use any kind of VPN when connecting to public networks. So we repeat one more time: If you connect to a public network without a VPN, it is equivalent to having all of your private information open for everybody to access. And vice versa, using one provides you with a decent level of protection no matter where you are. So, choose a service that suits you in terms of conditions and price, and install it on all of the devices you use to connect to public networks.
7. Keep your OS updated
Regularly updating your OS may be time-consuming and annoying, but you cannot go without it, because security is one of the most common features to be updated. So long as you use an outdated build, your device remains easy prey for hackers.
Follow these tactics, and you will protect yourself from the majority of dangers accompanying the use of public hotspots; or better yet, avoid using them at all.
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