Is that wonderful free WiFi as secure as you think?

Jan 24, 2017 | Security, Web

The symbol of hope, displayed in shop windows and doorways.

With the ever-present and still growing portability of devices ( including phones, tablets, laptops and more) and rising costs of data still a concern, more and more people are on the hunt for public internet connections. Even better, free public internet connections.

In comes the free WiFi – and it’s everywhere. Cafes, restaurants, stores, malls, hotels and more – all heralded and announced by the well known signal displayed on shop doors and windows.

However, you have to be wary of your surroundings – you’re connected to an open network that you don’t know the owner of, with an unknown number of strangers connected as well. Keep in mind that you’re not only sharing the network with strangers – you’re potentially sharing your files and data… and it’s not exactly too hard to obtain usernames, passwords, and monitor one’s activity if they’re on the same connection.

Now the more important matter at hand – You still need that internet connection, but you want to stay safe. How do you do so?

1. Make your computer invisible to the network, as well as your files.

The first necessary but easy step to do is to disable the ability for other computers on the network to see you and your files – which in turn makes you unable to see them. Not that you had any reason to, right?

If you have a windows-based computer:

Press the start menu, and go to Control > Internet Settings > Network and Sharing Options.

To the left, click Advanced Sharing Settings.

You want to make sure that Network Discovery is turned off (this lets other computers see you on the network.), File Sharing is off (They can look into your documents and other files! ) and Public Folder Sharing is off — it’s sort of scary that most of these are on by default, but make sure it is otherwise!

Save your changes, and you’re good to go.

If you’re on a Mac?

Go to System Preferences > Shading and turn of File Sharing.

As an extra level of security, you’ll want to make sure that your firewall and antivirus software is enabled while on the network!

2. Make sure that your device is up to date.

This is a general tip that is important whether or not you’re on a public WiFi connection!  Make sure that your device is up to date with drivers, updates, and security patches. This applies to the operating system itself, any hardware or software, and your browser.

Many times, an update put out is not just for added cosmetic or functionality — there’s instances that a security risk or vulnerability has been discovered, so they make sure to patch it.

At the same time, be aware and cautious of when you do attempt to update. I’m sure everyone has come across the classic “YOUR WINDOWS COMPUTER NEEDS A NEW UPDATE URGENT! (Insert sirens and flashing text here!)” and if you’re unfortunate enough, with a booming loud voice that sounds out as well — and sometimes they’re more subtle. But verify that the update is real by going to the official website, and checking to see any alerts or announcements regarding the patch.

3. Avoid accessing sensitive information.

This one isn’t so obvious, but looking up things like your banking or credit card information can wait until you’re on a more secure network – for example, your home WiFi connection (which is hopefully protected as well! ) If it is still necessary, it’s advisable to just call into your bank or the service directly if possible!

4. Manually select your WiFi connection.

By default, your devices often are set to automatically connect to whatever public WiFi connection is available. Make sure to disable it, so that instead you enable a connection at will. People can set up fake WiFi networks with the goal of stealing information from vulnerable computers!

When you are done with a connection, tell your computer or phone to “forget” the network if you don’t plan to return to it any time soon, or if it is not a network that you want to connect to again.

5. Turn off your WiFi when not in use.

There’s a two part reason for this!

The first: Whether or not you are using the connection actively, your computer will be seeking to connect — and sometimes it’s not always the connection you planned for (this goes back to point #4, of disabling automatic connections.) This will ensure that no one tries to go poking around, especially if you aren’t around.

The second: It’s more noticeable with your smartphone rather than your tablet or laptop, but this just helps save you battery life! Whether or not you are actively using or connected to a WiFi network, your device is draining itself. Turn it off, and save a few minutes to do important tasks!

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