It can be hard to stay connected when you’re traveling. That’s why so many of us are guilty of connecting to public Wi-Fi hotspots without taking the time to properly read the terms of service. Instead of thinking about how these networks work, most of us are just happy to be able to find a solid internet connection so we can post that latest pic to Instagram. The unfortunate truth is that most public hotspots are incredibly insecure. So insecure that basically anyone on the same network can see what sites you’re loading and which programs you’re running. Even worse, the network hosts themselves have no obligation to protect your privacy. In fact, by agreeing to using public Wifi by entering your email address; or some other form of personal information, you’re actually helping them scrape and sell your private data.
The next time you find yourself without an internet connection and are looking for a public network, follow these four tips to help keep your data safe.
4 Safety Tips for Using Public Wifi
1. Know what type of network you’re connecting to
The first step toward securing your network is realizing that not every Wi-Fi hotspot is created equal; most airports, for example, are known for having very little security in their public networks. Coffee shops and libraries are a different story. While most cafes now offer encrypted networks (i.e., they require a password in order to connect), you’re still running the risk of exposing your private information.
You should always be wary of networks that require your email address, phone number; or any other type of personal data in exchange for internet access. When debating whether to connect, it’s important to consider whether the cost of free Wi-Fi is really worth it. Are a few minutes online really worth forking over your personal data?
2. Avoid sharing sensitive data online
While it might be OK to use public networks simply to check the news or catch up on your favorite subreddit, it’s best to err on the side of caution; and avoid logging in to banking sites or even logging on to your social media accounts. The scary truth is that most open networks are a hacker’s delight. So when you enter your various usernames and passwords, there’s an extremely high chance of them being skimmed and picked up by someone else.
By the same token, it’s also worth limiting what type of information your device is able to share. If you’re using a PC, you can turn off your file sharing options by heading to your Network and Sharing Center and navigating to turn off the File and Printer Sharing option. For Mac users, the process is even easier. Simply head to your System Preferences, select Sharing, and then turn everything off.
3. Have antivirus software? Make sure it’s up to date
Whether you’re paying for your antivirus protection or using one of the many free options available, make sure your software is optimized and updated before using public wifi. It may be a pain to continually set time aside to update your network, but the payoff is worth it.
Hackers are always finding new ways to exploit software to access your personal information. So antivirus and antimalware companies are constantly rolling out new patches to help keep your devices safe from harm. If spies or thieves are trying to exploit your network through a known backdoor, your malware software should be able to stop them before any damage is done.
4. Always use a VPN before logging on
While the above steps may help keep your information safe from snoops and hackers, they do nothing to prevent the network owners from monitoring, recording, and even selling your private browsing habits. To really keep your network secure, you’re going to want to use a VPN (virtual private network).
When you use a VPN, you’re instantly able to encrypt your connection and anonymize your location. This means no one can see your internet connection—not even the network hosts. As an added bonus, a VPN also makes it possible for you to access sites and services that might not have been available before.
By following these tips, you’ll have a much easier time using public wifi and keeping your network safe, secure, and private no matter where you are.