Digital convergence, the Internet and the spread of personal smart devices has brought about a revolution in personal connectivity. With the increasing numbers of free WiFi services in municipal areas and in malls, restaurants and other public places, there is no need to be disconnected. With only the smallest of efforts, anyone can connect at any time for personal or business use.
As always, there is a downside, the need for online security.
Public WiFi services can be hacked and personal information stolen. Although most private interactions over a public WiFi are innocuous and don’t really need online security, some applications like online banking and shopping do need it to prevent theft of passwords and financial data. There is a definite need for online security when mobile staff members use WiFi in a café to connect to the corporate server to upload sales information and to download the latest financial and product information.
The first thing to completely understand is that public WiFi networks are inherently unsafe. Hackers can use a PC to easily set up a WiFi hotspot with a name very similar to the café you are in. If you connect via this hotspot they have the opportunity to intercept your information on the way through and collect passwords and financial information.
Be aware and be careful
- If a WiFi hotspot looks a bit iffy, check up before connecting. Most public WiFi service providers, including restaurant and café owners, require a password to connect, so if the password doesn’t work, that is a strong indicator to check up or to use a different hotspot.
- You also ensure that your firewall is up and running and uncheck the “block all incoming traffic” option. It is also very prudent to switch off file and printer sharing. On a Mac switch off Airdrop.
- Make sure that any sites you visit have the padlock in the top bar or start with https://. Websites that use https encrypt your information making sure that your activity on that site is confidential.
- Give out the minimum information needed to do what you need to do. Be particularly careful with personal information, or anything that could be used to identify you.
- Be careful what you sign up for. Make sure that you are ok with the information that the provider is asking to be able to collect. If they insist on installing software or browser extension to access their service, run away very fast.
- Some industry gurus recommend that you don’t use public WiFi for sensitive tasks like online banking and online purchases, basically anything that exposes your financial information. Use your mobile phone instead. Their network is much more secure.
- Be especially careful if you are accessing a corporate server.
- Be sensible and switch on your common sense antenna. If sensitive transactions can wait till you get home, wait, or use your mobile phone.
Use UP to Date Anti-Malware software
It is not generally recognised that smart devices, including Android phones, can be infected with malware. So:
- If you are using a laptop, make sure that your anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up to date. If you are using a smart device, even an Android, do the same.
- Scan your device after using a public WiFi service.
- If something doesn’t look right, get out.
A VPN is essentially a private tunnel over the Internet, encrypting your data via a secure server before delivery. It is therefore much more secure than an open connection. There are many free and paid-for VPN clients for PCs and smart devices.
However, be careful with the VPN you choose. Most are secure, but some, particularly the free ones are downright dodgy. They are supported by marketing or data collection firms who use the VPN service to collect data for later sale or use. Best use a paid-for one like HMA. Incidentally, they are also useful if you want to get around geographical restrictions on accessing online services.
A good VPN is essential if you move around a lot and connect to a variety of different hotspots.
In the commercial environment, most corporates use a VPN to allow connection with the corporate server back at home base. The company IT department will advise on the VPN client you should use and will help you to install and configure it.
Public WiFi services are a great thing, especially if you suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). You can stay connected to Social Media for free, chat with your pals all day long and not miss a thing. For more serious uses, public WiFi also provides great benefits, particularly for the mobile road warrior who needs to connect back to the office on a regular basis.
Remember though, “Be careful out there”.