We all love to be connected when we are out and about without racking up hefty data bills, so free public Wi-Fi networks can be invaluable. But we’ve all heard warnings about hackers preying on users of public Wi-Fi networks to deploy malware, steal data etc. So should you use public networks?
Yes. If there is an offer of free Wi-Fi, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth! But DO take precautions – you need to be extra careful online.
We’ve put together the following few tips to help make sure you stay safe on public networks:
- Ensure your device is up to date before you even think about using any public Wi-Fi networks! Patching and updating software regularly ensures that your system is aware of all the latest threats that are out there. However, make sure you do this at home or on a trusted network… there have been instances of devices prompting users to update their software on public networks and enabling malware to be installed on the device.
- When it comes to connecting to the network, check you are connecting to the right one. It is really easy for hackers to set up a network that mimics and looks almost identical to that of a nearby organisation. It’s better to check with a staff member or look for signage that points you to the correct identity of the Wi-Fi network.
- Make sure that sharing is disabled on your device and that the network is marked as a public network. On a Windows computer, go to ‘Control Panel > Network and Sharing Centre > Change Advanced Sharing Settings’. Tick the boxes for ‘Turn off network discovery’ and ‘turn off file and printer sharing’. To do this on a Mac, open ‘System Preferences’, click on ‘sharing’ and untick any of the boxes on the left hand side if they are ticked. To mark the network as ‘public’, when you connect to the network, it will give you the option to mark it as ‘home’, ‘work’ or ‘public’. If you have previously marked a public network as ‘home’ and want to change it to ‘public’ you can simply tell your computer to forget the network and choose the right option when you reconnect.
- It’s definitely worth turning on a Firewall when using a public network. In Windows, go to ‘Control Panel > System and Security > Windows Firewall’. In the left hand pane you will see the option ‘Turn Windows Firewall on or off’. On a Mac: open ‘System Preferences > Security and Privacy’ and go to the ‘Firewall’ tab.
- Be mindful of what you do and how much you give away whilst using the public network. Malicious attackers can often be watching for login details etc, so it’s probably better to stick to basic web-surfing.
- Check for ‘HTTPS’ in the URL bar. If you have to enter any details, check for the lock symbol in your browser (next to the URL bar) or check that the HTTPS protocol is being used. HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol and the ‘S’ indicated that it is secure and has a valid security certificate and up to date encryption. Only entering details on HTTPS sites will mean that your private information is encrypted and sent to the recipient, so any would-be listeners on the network cannot make sense of the encrypted data. Watch out when using mobile versions of sites as they will not always be HTTPS – use the full version of the site.
- If you are connecting for work reasons, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN provides you with remote access to your company’s servers and encrypts the traffic between your device and the VPN server for secure connection.
- Ensure you log out of anythign that you do log into on a public network for further security… don’t leave yourself and your accounts exposed.
- When you’re done, forget the network and turn your Wi-Fi off. If you’re not connected and visible it reduces the risk of people being able to notice that you are there.
- If you frequent public Wi-Fi networks, make sure you change your passwords regularly. This is a good habit to get into anyway, but when using untrusted connections often, changing your password will mean that if your details have been monitored, they will be useless.