Are you doing all you can to stay safe on public Wi-Fi?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Mediacom)

Well, are you doing all you can to stay safe on public Wi-Fi? Since nine out of ten of us admit that we take risks when surfing on public networks, and some of the remaining 10 per cent probably don’t know best practice, it’s reasonable to assume that you’re not.

And it’s no good relying on your apps and browser to protect you, either. Around 38 per cent of apps aren’t doing anything to keep you safe. And a quarter of all public Wi-Fi hotspots use zero encryption (while many of the rest use sub-standard protection).

Altogether, it’s no wonder that nearly a billion people are affected by cyber-crime each year. It seems pretty likely that there’s more that most, if not all, of us could be doing to stay safe.

With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most effective ways to defend against hackers while using public Wi-Fi.

Use VPN

While the internet is supposed to be ‘free,’ gratis, without cost, of course it never truly is. So we pay for faster devices, a home network, a coffee to legitimise sitting around using some business’s public Wi-Fi connection for an hour or three.

But still that sense that we shouldn’t be paying for the internet persists, and we cut corners at every opportunity. VPN is one such expense that many of us deem unnecessary.

Well, in the end it’s up to you. But saving a few dollars per month (likely less than that cup of coffee) could cost you more in time, hassle, and money further down the line if your security is compromised by unencrypted Wi-Fi.

A decent VPN service sits on your computer and multiple other devices (depending on the package you get) and encrypts your data, using a combo of IP security, Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol, and Secure Sockets Layer and Transport Layer Security to funnel your activity to a secure third-person server.

It’s not always ideal to use a VPN, since they can slow your connection (although a decent one shouldn’t be too noticeable) and affect the accessibility of some websites. But even if you don’t always use it at home (for example when sending large files) it should be installed and switched on as default when using public Wi-Fi.

Monitor your sharing preferences

If you travel to work straight from the office, or your device is set up for various sharing capabilities at home, you should think about disarming your sharing preferences before you hook up to public Wi-Fi.

You certainly don’t need file-sharing enabled if you’re in a café or airport, unless you’re traveling as a pack and shared access to your files is essential during the whole journey.

Any hacker or curious know-it-all with requisite technological knowledge can access your shared files through a shared Wi-Fi connection.

And that’s not the only portal we tend to leave wide-open when using devices in public. An open Bluetooth connection can also be a serious vulnerability if spotted by malign parties. Ok, so everything is Bluetooth these days – especially with Apple making it so hard to connect a USB mouse to your MacBook or a sturdy, reliable old 3.5mm jack to your iPhone. But if you can face using your touchpad for a couple of hours, or you have the capability or connectors to use that headphone jack, it’s best to do so when working in public.

A third setting to look at is your device’s auto-connectivity. This is when it is enabled to automatically dial you into any familiar Wi-Fi signal that doesn’t require authentication. But that means that if you already have a particular Wi-Fi hub saved in your phone, anybody can spoof that hub and your phone will still automatically connect to it. Hey presto, the hackers have access to your data.

The most secure thing you can do to avoid this is to switch off auto-connect altogether. This will put control back in your hands. However, understandably, some folk prefer the convenience of knowing that their device will automatically connect to a certain co-working space’s (for example) signal every time they arrive; if that sounds like you, then just remember to ‘Forget Network’ after using those Wi-Fi connections that you don’t want to connect to automatically in future.

Please, please, check your settings and preferences before connecting to public Wi-Fi. In fact, in the case of auto-connectivity, you should do it before you leave home.

Go the extra mile

Don’t worry, this subheading doesn’t mean we recommend walking further to find your ideal Wi-Fi spot (although… why not?) – rather it refers to those security habits that most of us know we should do, but usually don’t. In short: make a bit more effort.

Which habits are these? Well, number one is your password hygiene. Stop using the same password for every portal. Quite aside from hackers who might pick up on it virtually, you never know when someone’s peering over your shoulder in the café. Lose a ‘master password’ and you lose all your passwords.

Pick unique passwords for each site, and try to make them nonsensical. Use a different group of meaningless letters, numbers, and symbols, for each one. And if these are tough to remember, get a password manager. (Norton’s offering also generates tough-to-crack passwords on your behalf, in case you’re stuck for inspiration.)

Pair this with two-factor authentication, and your accounts will be pretty tough nuts to crack.

And just in case you do get caught out, by data theft, malicious sabotage, malware, or just plain somebody pinching your laptop: back up your data. Yes, it takes time. Yes, the ideal moment is at the end of a session – just when you want to walk away and close your laptop down. But find a system that works for you (iCloud, Time Machine, Google Drive, your own hard drive, or a combination of the above) and get disciplined.

Working away from the office is a joy. But most of us get so excited about roaming free, we leave ourselves open to a disastrous attack. Work through the above, plus these anti-hacking tips from Budget Direct, and you give yourself a much better chance of not becoming a statistic.

G. John Cole, Writer, NeoMam Studios
Image Credit: Mediacom