How to Protect Your Data on Public WiFi

How to Protect Your Data on Public WiFi

The internet has become integral to most types of business and being able to connect anywhere, anytime is essential to staying ahead in competitive environments. To meet the demands of their busy schedules, many people turn to public WiFi. The convenience it affords comes with risks, though, and without taking precautions, you might lose more than you gain. When using public networks, it’s important to understand their dangers and how to protect yourself.


The Threats

The dangers of public WiFi generally stem from a combination of two things: first, data sent through these networks is largely unsecured; and second, the people using these networks aren’t screened or regulated. While these risks might be reduced based on the networks setup (e.g. login portals or partly closed networks), they are present to some degree in all public networks.


These are some of the most common ways that these weaknesses are exploited:

  • WiFi Snooping: This practice, also called sniffing, involves monitoring data packets being sent through a network. Because public hotspots are rarely encrypted, monitoring the data on them in a simple task.
  • Man-in-the-Middle Attacks: More complex than snooping, this method involves rerouting data on a network in order to monitor it. It can get around some basic network security provisions.
  • Malware: Attackers can spread malware through open networks to other users who are connected to them.
  • Rogue Hotspots: These are networks set up to look like legitimate public hotspots. Attackers then monitor the data of users who mistakenly connect to them.


The Solutions

Because the dangers of public WiFi come mainly from its vulnerabilities, the solutions, naturally, involve minimizing the openings attackers might exploit. This involves a mix of software solutions and making smart choices about how you use public WiFi.


Perhaps the simplest way to protect yourself is to avoid the most vulnerable networks. When using public WiFi, avoid using networks that aren’t secured. Instead, choose those that use WPA or WPA2 password protection (i.e. they require a login when you connect to the network). These both restrict the users entering the network and provide some protection for the data sent on them. If these aren’t available, use those that have in-browser login portals. These filter users as well, but the level of data protection varies—read the terms of service carefully before choosing to connect.


Be careful about the sites you visit and the information you send. As much as possible, stick to sites with encrypted connections and use apps or programs that let you verify whether connections are encrypted or not. Avoid sending any sensitive information, such as bank account details.


Finally, you can protect your system with security software. These will let you use public networks with somewhat more freedom, since they provide a level of overall protection, regardless of the network. Antivirus and anti-malware programs should be your first level of defense (in the absence of these, enable you built-in security and firewalls). It’s also advisable to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN encrypts your incoming and outgoing communications, protecting them from unwanted monitoring. It also effectively changes your IP address, making it difficult for others to track you.


Of course, while these will provide a decent amount of protection, you’re always at greater risk on public networks than you are at home. If you have to do anything involving bank accounts or private information, it’s best to save it for your home network.


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