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Connecting to Public Wi-Fi Hotspots Securely

You can access Wi-Fi hotspots almost anywhere these days. While it’s a convenient way to connect to the internet (often for free), it’s not as safe as you may think. You may not know who set it up, how secure it is, or who else is connecting to it. There are significant security risks when connecting to an unknown Wi-Fi hotspot. It’s relatively easy, for example, for a malicious actor to see everything you type and every site you visit on an unsecured network.

Where you can’t use your phone’s internet connection instead, there are some simple things to consider and steps you can take to protect your data and personal details when accessing a publicly available Wi-Fi hotspot.

Check Whether You Can You Trust the Provider

While no publicly accessible Wi-Fi network is entirely secure when you do use them, try to stick to well-known networks (for instance, those provided by the store or coffee shop you’re in). Ask yourself why someone would provide a free service and whether they might have a nefarious reason for doing so.

Some hackers use hotspot names that are similar to the names of the location you’re in use. If unsure, ask an employee for the name of the hotspot that they provide.

Don’t automatically connect to any available free hotspots – in fact, it’s good practice to disable this feature on your phone or other devices. For instance, some devices can join other unencrypted wireless networks without your intervention and transfer information; it’s a good idea to close apps you’re not using and/or limit their ability to go online in the background.

Try Not to Access Sensitive Information While Browsing

Even where a trusted source provides a Wi-Fi hotspot, some forms of attack (called ‘man in the middle’) can eavesdrop on your online activity by intercepting data between your computer and the hotspot’s router. The best way to protect yourself against this attack is to use websites that implement encrypted communication (which are labelled HTTPS rather than HTTP). You can also use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which does the same thing for all your communications (see below).

The best thing to do is assume that someone is listening to (or watching) your web browsing and limit the browsing you do so that it does not include providing personal or sensitive information such as your email address or phone number. In particular, do not conduct tasks like electronic banking or making purchases online through an insecure network as your financial details could be stolen.

Turn Off File Sharing Options and Avoid Downloads

You should disable features on your device that enable easy file-sharing, printer, or network access (such as Airdrop). This ensures that no-one can access your files or send files you don’t want to your device. You should also avoid sending any files that you don’t want anyone else to have access to. As stated above, the best thing is to assume that someone can see these files. Also, don’t download files or install applications or apps when using a hotspot unless it’s necessary.

Using a VPN

If you deal with sensitive information and need to access Wi-Fi regularly (such as when traveling), then the best option is to use a VPN service. VPNs encrypt all data traveling to and from your device through a secure server, and they make it almost impossible to intercept and read your data. While this is best practice for business users and others that deal with sensitive information, it’s probably not a practical option (and not free) for the average user who wants to use a Wi-Fi hotspot from time to time.

The next-generation Wi-Fi security protocol (WPA3) will include built-in security protections for accessing networks through wireless hotspots. Until then, keep the above points in mind when accessing an unknown Wi-Fi network to ensure your security.

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