A Beginner’s Guide to Staying Safe on Public WiFi Networks 

A lot of people take public WiFi networks for granted, connecting to one as soon as it’s in range without a second thought. However, even when they are password-protected, these public networks are not nearly as safe as many people might think. After all, you’re sharing a connection with many other people, and this means that any unencrypted data sent between your computer and the Internet is at risk, whether it’s passwords for online accounts, emails, uploads and downloads or pretty much anything else. Newer versions of Windows and other software might offer some degree of protection, but to ensure you’re as safe as possible, you’ll need to take some actions of your own.

What Are the Risks? 

It doesn’t take some genius hacker to intercept the information being sent between your computer and the local router, provided you’re both connected to the same network. Even secure websites, such as those featuring TSL security, often only encrypt your login information, leaving virtually everything else open in full view to someone with the right tools at their disposal. For example, even a simple browser extension, such as Firesheep for Firefox, which was programmed to illustrate just how unsecure public networks can be, can allow someone to hijack the browsing session from anyone else connected to the same network and see exactly what they’re seeing on their screen. For example, it’s extremely easy for someone else on the network to see things like Facebook messages, even if they can’t log in to the account themselves.

Understanding Your Security Settings 

Hopefully, the above will be more than enough to encourage you to become more vigilant when using any public networks, whether they’re at college, your favourite bar or restaurant or in the city park. In fact, it doesn’t matter where the network is located – if you’re not taking any extra steps to protect yourself, then you’re almost certainly at risk. Most importantly, you should use your computer’s built-in settings to ensure that things like file sharing and network discovery are switched off whenever you’re using any WiFi connection that isn’t your own, password-protected home network. In Windows, you can change the necessary settings in the Network and Sharing Center, although it should ask you to specify the network type whenever you connect to it the first time. Windows also provides a firewall, which is activated by default.

Look Out for the Padlock Symbol 

Any webpage that asks you for account details or any other potentially sensitive information, should provide a secured connection characterised by the padlock symbol, which means that your connection to the website is protected by a TSL security certificate. In most browsers, this symbol will be located next to the Web address. If there’s no symbol, then the site is unsecured, and this means that any plain text you enter, such as search queries, can be intercepted by someone else connected to the network. If data is encrypted by the TSL protocol, however, then it will be encrypted and unintelligible to any hacker who might manage to intercept it. While that might not sound like a big problem, you certainly won’t want things like passwords and credit card numbers landing in someone else’s hands. As previously mentioned, however, many other things, such as private messages, are not encrypted. In other words, while TSL security is a crucial component of any website that handles potentially sensitive information, it is not to be relied on completely.

Use a VPN 

Although it might sound like an exercise in paranoia, it’s often wise to approach public networks as completely open domains whereby someone else might be able to see everything that you see in your browser. The larger and more public the network, the higher the risk too. The only real way to ensure you have the same level of security that you enjoy on a completely private home network is to use what’s called a VPN. A virtual private network allows you to connect to the Internet via a separate service, which acts as a barrier between your computer and the Internet. In other words, it ensures that all of your online activities are kept secured and separate from everything else on the network. Conveniently, connecting through a VPN also allows you to appear to websites that you’re connecting from another country (where the VPN server is location), allowing you to circumvent any regional content restrictions in your area. Both free and paid VPNs are widely available, although many free ones will themselves collect certain data for the purposes of advertising and market research.  

It’s not difficult to improve your online safety when connecting to public networks and, while the above doesn’t offer any guarantees, it will take you a long way closer to being safe online. However, for the very best security, you’ll usually need to opt for a paid VPN subscription service.