Public Wi-Fi hotspots are usually open and unsecured. After all, they're intended to be a convenience, so it's in the admin’s interest to make it easier for users to connect to them. Unfortunately, that same lack of security also makes connecting to them risky. Here are ten very simple measures you can take to stay safe, whether you're connecting your notebook to a network in the coffee shop next door, or to one in an airplane 35,000 feet in the air.
Pick the most secure network
Although many hotspots have no security set, some do. If you have a choice, select those that use some form of encryption. You can tell which networks are secured in Windows 7 by left clicking on the wireless network connections icon (pictured below). Hovering the mouse over each SSID will display the security type. Try to avoid those networks with the security type "unseTop security tips for using your laptop with public Wi-Fi hotspots cured" if possible. In Windows 8, you’ll find the networks under Settings, then click Available. With Vista and XP, secured network SSIDs are displayed with a lock when you click open wireless network connections. Of course, you will need the password key to access, but some establishments (hotels are a good example, and security conscious coffee shops do exist) provide guests with Wi-Fi passwords. In order of preference, choose networks secured with WPA2 encryption, then WPA. WEP is a better-than-nothing last resort.
Set network location to "Public"
When you connect to a new network connection with Windows, the "Set Network Location" window pops-up automatically. Be sure to set the location to "Public Network" when prompted, if you're connecting to a public hotspot. The Public Network location blocks file and printer sharing – which are common routes for data snoopers. HomeGroup is not available with this option selected and network discovery is turned off, too; all of which makes your data less visible on a wireless network.
Use a VPN
Get yourself a third-party VPN product – see our article on the best free Virtual Private Network clients for recommendations. These solutions protect the user by creating a virtual private network between your machine and their network – a virtual tunnel. This tunnel is secured against anyone who may try to intercept your web session while connected to a public hotspot: Hackers, snoopers, bots and the like.
Be forewarned, though, that web surfing and file downloading may be a little slower using VPN, but that’s a small price to pay for extra security.
Harden your data defences
Antivirus software and security suites are great, but you should also harden your data defences in case someone gets through. In Windows, hide folders that contain sensitive data. This is easy to do: Just right click on the folder and select "Properties" and then under the "General" tab, set the folder's attributes to "Hidden." You will still be able to see the folder, although the folder icon will appear transparent. Then go into Windows Explorer. Click on the "Organise" button and then select "Folder and Search Options" to launch Folder Options. Click on the "View" tab and then select "Don't show hidden files, folders and drives." This is, of course, not the strongest of security defences, but it's a way to make it harder for intruders to readily find sensitive data.
Also consider encryption – you could use a program such as Safehouse Explorer, which we recommended in a recent article on how best to hide your data. Have a read of that article for some further data concealment tips.
Avoid banking via public hotspots
This is less a technical tip than a behavioural one: If at all possible, avoid doing more serious tasks like bill paying, accessing your bank account, or using your credit card when connected to public Wi-Fi. Save those transactions for when you're connected safely to your home wireless network. Because that's secure, right? If you need pointers on keeping your home network safe and sound, see our 10 tips to help secure your wireless network.
Don’t save passwords
Yes, it is tempting. There are just so many passwords to remember. Websites and browsers are forever asking if you want to save and store passwords. A general rule of thumb is that you're probably better off not storing your username and password anywhere, especially when it comes to banking sites and the like. That goes double for road warriors who frequently connect via public Wi-Fi. If you have trouble remembering your passwords, use a password manager – we have some recommendations for good password management utilities right here.
Use HTTPS and SSL
Many websites use HTTPS and SSL to make your connection to them more secure – both are protocols that provide encrypted communications. HTTPS is more secure than HTPP – sites that use the former are indicated by a padlock and green colour in your browser’s address bar. Financial institutions and major retailers should all use SSL on their websites to make transactions and communications more secure.
Remove sensitive data from your laptop
Consider leaving home without such data on your notebook. If possible, remove sensitive data like spreadsheets, bank files, or documents with, say, your National Insurance number on them from your laptop when you travel. Leave them on your home machine. If you must access that data when you’re on the move, consider storing it on a NAS device that you can access from the road. That way you can get to your data but can avoid having it reside on a machine that you connect to public hotspots. If you don't want to spend money on a NAS, you can always access your home machine remotely using an app like LogMeIn Pro.
Use a firewall
Turn on Windows Firewall, and use the setting for public networks for more secure access. Of course, a good quality Internet security suite with its own more robust firewall is a good idea, particularly for laptops which are hooking up with public hotspots.
Keep your OS and apps patched and updated
Windows Updates are an annoying yet necessary evil. OS X updates less frequently, but updates can also be critical for Apple too – so don't be lulled into a false sense of security because you're a Mac user. OS updates are serious business; they often fix serious security holes. And once the update is available, everyone in the world knows about the hole – if you haven't patched it, your laptop is low-hanging fruit ready to be plucked by an opportunistic hacker. And don't forget your other apps either; even people who remember OS updates often forget to keep their apps patched. App updates may also fix serious security holes.