Connecting to public Wi-Fi: Here’s how to protect your data and your device

Connecting to public Wi-Fi: Here’s how to protect your data and your device


Image: Getty/Tom Werner

The way we work has changed. Rise remote and hybrid work means that many office professionals are no longer tied to the office, at least not all the time.

While work from home is a very convenient option for many people, sometimes it’s a nice change of scenery – which is why some of us work from cafes, coffee shops or even unconventional locations like a boat or it’s here.

Then there’s the possibility that you’re traveling for work – or going on holiday – and want to open your laptop or smartphone to log into your emails, social networks, banking apps or online shopping accounts on the go, perhaps from the airport, hotel lobby or conference venue.

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When you do, it’s likely that the public space you’re in will have free Wi-Fi available to everyone.

By providing public Wi-Fi, the place allows people to use the Internet, something that is beneficial for users and can encourage them to stay longer in public places.

For example, if you work at a coffee shop and are happy with the relationship, you might stay longer and buy extra drinks or snacks while you’re there.

But while they’re useful, the nature of public Wi-Fi networks means they’re open for anyone to use – and for data to be transferred not so sure as it would be on your home or corporate network.

Your login names, passwords, bank details and other personal data can be at risk if you are not careful when using a public Wi-Fi network – either because the network itself is insecure or a malicious hacker has set up on the same network and routing data entered by others through channels that they can see.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your data from hackers, cybercriminals and other threats to your privacy while using public Wi-Fi.

Think about what you’re linking to

You’re at an airport and you look at the available Wi-Fi connections and you see something called ‘Free Airport Wi-Fi’ – seems reasonable enough, right? The airport is a place where people often have to wait for a while, so connecting your phone or laptop to the internet – while avoiding the cost of using your own data – seems like a sensible idea.

But how do you know it’s really the Wi-Fi network provided by the airport? It could be a network set up by a criminal, hoping to catch people unawares – after all, hundreds of thousands of people can pass through the airport every day. If even a small fraction of them log into a fake Wi-Fi network, there’s a chance a criminal could steal a lot of data.

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And all this by using relatively simple devices bought in the store, setting up the network and allowing people to connect to it.

With the right tools, whoever is running that fake network you may be able to see what information is being entered, which could lead to data theft. That’s why it’s important to check if the network is legitimate.

Be mindful of the websites you visit and the data you enter

Many public Wi-Fi networks want information from you in order to register to use them. This information can be your email address or even your phone number. If you don’t want to risk the Wi-Fi company storing your data or using it for marketing purposes, consider using a secondary email address.

Some networks will also require you to set a password to use the Wi-Fi network. if that’s the case, do not use the same password that you use for any other account – especially if that password is tied to your email address. Taking that approach means that if the passwords are somehow leaked, it’s not one that can be used to access any of your other accounts associated with your email address.

You should also be careful about what data you share on public Wi-Fi networks and should avoid using them if you need to do anything that involves sharing sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, and bank details.

The nature of public Wi-Fi means that it is possible for someone else to see the activity, which is especially the case if the website is not secured by https. However, just because a website has https, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe – and you should be careful about what information you enter.


Image: Getty/MStudioImages

Forget the network when you stop using it

If you’re on the move a lot, you might end up connecting to the same networks on different occasions – for example, on your way through an airport at both ends of your journey, or you might visit a chain coffee shop that has multiple locations.

When you previously connected to a network or network provider, your device it can automatically reconnect to it. This might be easy to forget, and you might take it for granted that the network is secure – but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that something has changed between visits.

To stay safe, you should set your device to forget previously used networks – or at least tell it not to automatically connect to them. You can choose to reconnect to the network manually if you want, but only after you’re sure you want to connect to it.

Consider using a VPN

Sometimes using Wi-Fi on a public network cannot be avoided. But even if you’re sure the network is legitimate and safe to use, there’s still an extra step you can take to protect your information—by using virtual private network (VPN).

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VPNs provide two key services to keep your information private and secure. Firstly, they encrypt your data – this is useful on public Wi-Fi networks as they are mostly unencrypted. Using a VPN makes it difficult for a network operator – or anyone who might maliciously use that network – to see what information you’re sending and receiving.

Second, they can also mask your IP address, hide where you are geographically located – a feature that is important for those who need online privacy.

For anyone who travels a lot or needs to regularly connect to Wi-Fi in public places, a VPN is a useful tool for staying safe online. They are many different suppliers and their VPNs are easy to install. When you want to use a VPN, you sign in and launch it like any other app.

You might be tempted to use a free VPN service. However, while VPNs are supposed to protect your privacy, some free services require unnecessary permissions or even don’t hide your information completely. While it’s recommended that someone who regularly needs a VPN pay for it, some of the major, most reputable ones VPN providers offer limited free versions.

Or don’t connect at all and connect to your smartphone instead

Even if you take precautions, connecting to a public Wi-Fi network carries a risk—even if it’s only a small one. But there’s an alternative to connecting to public Wi-Fi: using your smartphone’s cellular data.

If you connect to the Internet on your smartphone, it already does. But if you want to connect your laptop to the Internet, you can turn your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot and connect from it.

This trend is growing as 5G smartphones are becoming more common, providing users with much higher speeds rather than an overloaded public Wi-Fi network.

If you choose to connect using tethering, make sure the connection is protected with a strong password so that no one else can access it.

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