Are Free Public WiFi Networks Safe?
In recent years there has been a significant rise in both the number and frequency of people accessing websites and email via public WiFi networks.
Free WiFi can be accessed using any wireless-enabled device such as a Laptop, Smartphone or Tablet. However, particularly when users browse using a Smartphone, scant regard is given to the security of these networks and the data being transmitted over them, most notably, passwords and other personal information. The article below explains the risks of using such public wireless networks and how you can mitigate against such risks.
Unless you are using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) you should take extra precautions when using public WiFi. As the threats of hacking and identity theft become more pervasive, users need to be more aware than ever of the potential threats involved in connecting to unsecured Networks. This is less of a concern if you are simply browsing for information and not logging in to a website or sending emails.
1st Rule of Public WiFi Security – confirm the WiFi Network name:
Confirm the name of the network with the location. If you are in a coffee shop or other public WiFi area, confirm the name of the network with staff, otherwise in areas such as airport lounges the Network name should be displayed on notices. If the Network is called coffeeshop-wifi1, make sure that this is the network you connect to. It is very easy for someone to setup a network with a similar name in order to intercept the data of those that connect to this ‘imitation’ network.
2nd Rule of Public WiFi Security – turn off sharing:
You may have sharing enabled on your home network in order to access files/ screens between devices. You should check your settings to ensure all Sharing is disabled in public WiFi areas.
Turn off Sharing on a Windows OS:
- Go to Control Panel > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center
- click ‘Change Advanced Sharing Settings’
- turn off all sharing options
Turn off Sharing on a Mac:
- Go to System Preferences > Internet & Wireless > Sharing
- Uncheck any checked ‘Sharing’ options
Depending on the system you are using, you may be able to setup different profiles for home and shared networks and therefore may not have to change the ‘Sharing’ preferences when going between networks.
3rd Rule of Public WiFi Security – enable built-in Firewall:
A Firewall creates a type of barrier between your computer and the Internet, enabling the filtering of files which may be potentially damaging to your system. Without a Firewall your system is open to serious attacks.
Most systems will have a built-in firewall which you should ensure is enabled at all times. To enable the firewall/ check that it is enabled, do the following
Enable Firewall in Windows OS:
Go to Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Firewall
Enable Firewall on a Mac:
Go to System Preferences > Security > Firewall tab
4th Rule of Public WiFi Security – https:
When accessing any websites where you will be entering personal information or login details, ensure the page you are on is ‘https‘ (as opposed to ‘http‘ – prefixing the ‘://www.‘ in the address bar). There are various browser extensions you can install which force the browser to use https. However, nothing is foolproof and it is important not to become complacent. For highly sensitive tasks, such as online banking, wait until you get onto a secure home or office network if at all possible.
On Smartphones and Tablets, don’t assume that apps are secure to use over WiFi and never install app updates over an unsecured public WiFi Network.
5th Rule of Public WiFi Security – turn it off:
It is hard to get away from the ‘always-on’ mentality of having notifications/ emails and other information pushed to your device. When away from a secure WiFi connection (such as your home or office), turn off WiFi entirely until you need it. When you enable the WiFi you can download your emails, browse and whatever else you need to do but the safest way to use a public WiFi is with great caution!
It is always advisable to play it extra safe when using a public WiFi, assume that whatever you send and browse, someone else may be reading.