With an advent of mobile devices and portable machines, we are more connected as ever. WiFi has become a necessity in the modern world. There are an estimated 50 million WiFi hotspots around the world.
While most people use their Internet connections at home, hotspots are dramatically increasing. From restaurants to libraries, everyone expects to connect anytime, anywhere.
However, public WiFi often sacrifices security over availability, making your information vulnerable to attacks. Below are some tips to safely use open WiFi.
Be Aware of the Risks
Knowing what kind of connections are available to you and what kind of vulnerabilities are out there is the first step in safely using the public internet. Being aware of your options allows you to prevent possible damages.
Types of Connections
Hotspots are practically available almost everywhere in metropolitan areas, but not all connections are similar.
The most common public WiFi connections are those available in airports and department stores where you can just enable your device, and your smartphone connects without any fuss. Often accessible over a broader range of area, this type of hotspot is the least secure of all connections.
Some smaller establishments, such as coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, offer some basic level of protection using logins on splash screens. Some even have WiFi passwords and are usually available upon request or for a fee.
Lastly, some connections may require you to be a member of an organization, providing you with their secure logins. Some examples are the hotspots available in schools and universities where only students and faculty can connect using their academic login credentials.
Whatever protection is employed, these connections are still available to a large number of people which poses security risks.
Types of Attacks
Typically, hackers bypass public WiFi by mass testing passwords through brute force using specialized software. Once the hacker penetrates the connection, the entire network is available for the hacker to "sniff." Sniffing intercepts WiFi signals to analyze and extract information. Sniffer software is widely available and can capture any data sent over the network; some can even capture photos from the websites you visit.
Another type of attack uses a device to clone a hotspot, which redirects traffic through the machine. When your computer connects to the Internet through one of these clones, your entire browsing activity becomes available to the hacker. Information such as your email, password, and they capture other personal details efficiently.
How to Choose the Right Public Connection
Observe for Secure WiFi
Begin by observing what hotspot sources are available in the area. The first instinct is to choose the fastest and the first open WiFi, but take time to look for the best option regarding security. It is safer to connect to a network used by a small number of people as this can eliminate malicious users.
For instance, if a small cafe in an airport offers their WiFi, consider it over the more extensive airport network, even if you sacrifice speed and availability.
Rely on Reputable Brands
Additionally, choose connections offered by reputable brands as these are usually managed better and come with passwords and login credentials. You may have to pay a small fee for access, but it is a little trade-off than risking your security.
Lastly, always confirm with staff before connecting to a network as some malicious hotspots may mimic the Wi-Fi Network SSIDs of the establishments.
Protect your Connection
If there are only limited options for public WiFi, these are some steps that you can take to protect your connection.
Typically, the data sent over the connection between your device and the websites you visit use a protocol called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). In this form, plain data is transmitted to the servers and back to your device in "plain text" without any protection.
Any "sniffer" can intercept your connection and gather sensitive information. Websites, especially those dealing with confidential information, such as banks and online shops, employ HTTPS protocol (the additional "S" means secure).
All communications between your browser and the Internet are encrypted, making it harder for hackers to make sense of the data.
Tools and extensions, such as HTTPS Everywhere, forces websites to use its HTTPS protocol.
A private network, often used in offices and schools, is a group of devices connected sharing a limited connection to the Internet. This network uses restrictions and security measures, such as restricting third-party devices from joining to it.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) extends the private network outside a geographical space, allowing you to benefit from its security and management wherever you are.
VPN services are readily available such as SecurityKISS, which offers free 300MB/day secured connection. Another great option is CyberGhost with free and paid options in case you need more bandwidth and traffic.
Turn-off File Sharing
By default, your devices, especially your computer, share a connection over your local network. This feature enables you to use printers wirelessly and transfer files seamlessly from one device to another. However, this becomes a security hole when using a public WiFi. Follow the steps below to protect the data in your device.
On Windows, go to Control Panel, then choose Network and Sharing Center.
Then click Change Advanced Sharing Settings on the left-hand menu.
Under Public, choose to Turn off file and printer sharing and Turn off Public folder sharing.
On Mac OS, click the System Preferences icon in the dock. Choose Sharing.
Then, uncheck File Sharing on the left-hand side menu.
Protect your Device
Whether you’re using a public WiFi or a home connection, necessary security protection should already be set-up on your computer. In case it is not configured yet, follow the steps below.
- Windows 10
- Windows 7
For Windows 10, on Start open Windows Defender Security Center. Click Firewall & network protection.
Under Windows Firewall, turn it on.
For Windows 7, go to Control Panel, then choose Windows Firewall.
Click Turn Windows Firewall on or off on the left-hand side menu.
Under Public network location settings, choose Turn on Windows Firewall.
For Mac OS, open Security & Privacy in System Preferences
Click the Firewall tab. Click the lock icon at the bottom and enter your credentials. Click Turn On Firewall, then Start.
Update Antivirus and AntiMalware Regularly
The last defense of your device is your antivirus and anti-malware software. While an antivirus software, such as Panda Security and Kaspersky Internet Security, can catch common threats, the protection it offers is usually not enough.
To ensure that your files and information are safe, install and update anti-malware software as well. MalwareFox is a good option that can protect you from pop-up ads, spyware, and identity thieves. Schedule regular updates and scans of your device as well.
Making an effort to set-up your device's security system and being mindful of where you connect are small sacrifices that you can take to prevent more severe security attacks. Remember that public WiFi is typically only meant for casual browsing and not to access websites and portals which require sensitive information. Invest in a good data plan if you intend to maintain your regular browsing habits on the road.