When you’re on the go – traveling for work, or telecommuting from your local, cozy coffee house – public WiFi hotspots are a lifesaver. At restaurants, hotels, and even the car repair shop, WiFi Internet access has become ubiquitous and, quite frankly, expected by patrons.
Connecting to a public WiFi hotspot is so easy and convenient; the decision to connect has become automatic. We connect without a second thought, and hackers know this.
The Dangers of Public WiFi
When you walk into an establishment with public WiFi, you can usually connect without a password. Don’t do it.
An open, public WiFi hotspot is unsecured. Anyone can access it and easily monitor the data passing through the WiFi router. Anytime you browse a password-protected website, like your email or social media account, your login credentials pass through the WiFi router. Anyone with easy-to-obtain listening software can capture that data and read it clear as day.
Additionally, anybody could walk into a business and set up his own rogue hotspot with the same name as the business’ WiFi hotpot. Unsuspecting patrons connect to the rogue hotspot and compromise their data.
For example, when you see one WiFi network that’s password-protected and one that’s not, you might be tempted to connect to the open one. It’s easier and free. However, you could be connecting to a rogue hotspot – one that appears to be legit, but isn’t.
Even in your own office, you need to be sure to only connect to your password-protected office WiFi LAN and not a rogue hotspot set up to appear like your office’s WiFi network. Many offices provide open WiFi hotspots for guests, which can easily be spoofed.
Password-Protection Doesn’t Mean Secure
So, are all password-protected WiFi hotspots, such as those found in hotels, secure? It depends on what type of encryption is being used. Password-protected WiFi hotspots use a variety of encryptions, such as WPA, WPA2, or WPS. The WPA and WPS security settings can be cracked in minutes. Only connect to hotspots with WPA2 encryption. You can typically see a hotspot’s encryption settings on your device prior to connecting.
HTTPS is a Good Start
When exchanging sensitive information over a public WiFi network, such as credit card info or login credentials, be sure the URL of the page you are entering this information on starts with “HTTPS” – the “S” standing for secure. If you access your email from a desktop client like Outlook or Apple Mail, make sure your accounts are SSL encrypted.
Ideally, when connected to public WiFi, you should only browse sites that are secure (https). However, not all website use security certificates. And, even though the data on secure web pages is encrypted, someone listening in or “sniffing” the WiFi network can still see what sites you are visiting – information that could be used to profile you.
VPN is the Solution
The safest and easiest way to make sure your device and data are safe when connecting to a public WiFi hotspot is to use trusted VPN (virtual private network) software provided by your company or a third party VPN service (check out Lifehacker’s Five Best VPN Service Providers).
VPN software encrypts all of the data passing to and from your device and anonymizes it. You don’t have to worry about what kind of encryption the WiFi hotspot uses, or only browsing HTTPS pages. VPN is a one-solution-fits-all option that makes connecting to WiFi on the go simple and stress-free.
So, when you’re on the go, it’s easy to take shortcuts with your data security. Don’t. Before you connect to a public WiFi hotspot, be sure to activate your VPN software, or take the precautions detailed above.
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