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How to stay safe on public Wi-Fi: Essential Tips for Your Next Trip

Planning a trip? Whether it’s across the globe or just around the corner, it’s important to brush up on your Wi-Fi security knowledge.

public Wi-Fi
public Wi-Fi

The work landscape has evolved. The advent of remote and flexible work arrangements means that many professionals are not constantly confined to an office.

While the home office is a viable solution for many, occasionally, a different environment is desirable. This is why some choose to work from places like cafes, bistros, or even unique spots like a yacht or a camper van.

There’s also the chance that you’ll be on a business trip or vacation and need to access your emails, social media, or banking apps on the move, possibly from an airport, a hotel lounge, or a convention center.

In these situations, it’s probable that the public area you’re in will offer complimentary Wi-Fi for all to use.

By offering public Wi-Fi, the location allows individuals to access the internet, a service that’s beneficial for patrons and might motivate them to spend more time in public areas.

However, while convenient, the characteristic of public Wi-Fi networks is that they’re accessible to all – and the data transmitted isn’t as protected as it would be on your personal or business network.

Your usernames, passwords, financial information, and other personal details could be exposed if you’re not vigilant – either because the network itself lacks security, or a nefarious hacker has infiltrated the same network and is rerouting data entered by others through channels they can monitor.

Here are five measures you can implement to help safeguard your data from hackers and other privacy threats when using public Wi-Fi.

Navigating Public Wi-Fi Securely

Confirm the Network’s Authenticity

You’re at an airport and you notice a Wi-Fi connection named ‘Free Airport Wi-Fi’ – seems trustworthy, right? An airport is a location where people often have to wait, so connecting a phone or laptop to the internet – while avoiding the expense of using your own data – appears reasonable.

But how can you be certain that it’s genuinely a Wi-Fi network provided by the airport? It could be a network established by a fraudster, hoping to catch unsuspecting individuals – after all, an airport can see hundreds of thousands of visitors each day. If even a small percentage of them logged into a counterfeit Wi-Fi network, the fraudster could potentially harvest a significant amount of data.

This could be achieved using relatively basic, commercially available devices. With the appropriate tools, the person operating that counterfeit network can observe what information is being inputted, which could result in data theft. That’s why it’s crucial to confirm the network’s authenticity.

This can sometimes be challenging if you’re presented with a lengthy list of Wi-Fi networks to connect to. However, most airports will display signs indicating the name of their official complimentary Wi-Fi. Ensure you’re connecting to that exact network name. The same applies to many public areas or offices – they will indicate the correct network name. Be sure to pay close attention to this before you opt to join.

Be cautious about sharing personal details

Public Wi-Fi networks often require you to provide certain details, such as your email address or phone number, to gain access. If you’re concerned about the Wi-Fi provider storing your data or using it for promotional activities, think about using an alternate email address.

Some of these networks might ask you to create a password for Wi-Fi use. In such cases, avoid using a password that you’ve used elsewhere, especially if it’s associated with your email account. This strategy ensures that even if the passwords are compromised, they can’t be used to access any other accounts linked to your email.

It’s important to be aware of the information you’re sharing on public Wi-Fi networks. Refrain from using these networks for tasks that involve sharing sensitive details, like usernames, passwords, and banking information.

Public Wi-Fi networks, by their very nature, could potentially expose your activities to others, especially if the website isn’t secured with https. Even if a website uses https, it doesn’t guarantee its security, so be careful about the information you input.

Here’s a rephrased version of the paragraphs:

Disconnect from the network when not in use

Frequent travelers may find themselves connecting to the same networks repeatedly, such as at different airport terminals or various branches of a coffee shop chain.

Your device may automatically reconnect to a network you’ve used before. This can be overlooked easily, and you might assume the network is secure, but the security status could change between visits.

For your safety, configure your device to forget networks once you’re done using them, or at least prevent it from automatically reconnecting. You can manually reconnect to a network, but only after confirming its safety.

Implement a VPN

There may be times when you have to use Wi-Fi on a public network. Even if you’re confident that the network is safe, you can take an extra step to secure your information by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

VPNs offer two main benefits for privacy and security. Firstly, they encrypt your data, which is particularly useful on public Wi-Fi networks that are typically unencrypted. This encryption makes it challenging for the network operator or any malicious users to view your data.

Secondly, VPNs can mask your IP address, concealing your geographical location – a crucial feature for those requiring online privacy.

For frequent travelers or those regularly connecting to Wi-Fi in public areas, a VPN is a valuable tool for online safety. Numerous vendors offer easy-to-install VPNs. To use the VPN, you simply log in and run it like any other app.

While the allure of free VPN services may be strong, remember that some may request unnecessary permissions or fail to fully protect your data. Subscription-based VPN services are generally more reliable, although some reputable vendors do offer limited free options.

Opt for your phone’s hotspot

Despite taking precautions, using a public Wi-Fi network still poses a risk. An alternative is to use your smartphone’s mobile data.

Connecting to the internet via your smartphone’s mobile data is safer than using public Wi-Fi. If you need to connect your laptop to the internet, you can convert your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot and tether from it.

As 5G smartphones become more prevalent, users can enjoy faster speeds than those offered by congested public Wi-Fi networks.

If you decide to use a hotspot, make sure the connection is secured with a complex password to prevent unauthorized access.

One final consideration: is it necessary to connect every time? Not every trip to a coffee shop or airport needs to be an opportunity to go online. Perhaps enjoying a coffee or reading a book could be a more fulfilling way to spend a few minutes, rather than hastily checking your email on an unfamiliar Wi-Fi connection.

Privacy Hints

PrivacyHints is a team built up of computer security experts, tech reporters, lawyers, and strong privacy supporters from all over the world working together.

As digital leaders, we strongly believe in the importance of personal privacy and the huge potential that comes from having a free but safe internet. We’re not just interested in listing risks; we’re also strongly committed to revealing the hidden threats that threaten our right to privacy and freedom online as a whole.

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