Public WiFi is undeniably convenient but without the right precautions, it comes with several risks. As public networks are used by several people, often with minimal regulation, they are vulnerable to breaches in privacy. Some, like data snooping, can be carried out with surprising ease and simple equipment. Others, like man-in-the-middle attacks or malware distribution, might require more sophisticated resource, but are more difficult for other network users to block.
Fortunately, there are a number of fairly simple steps that you can take to significantly reduce the risks you face on public WiFi. Some require additional software, while others simply require that you adjust your WiFi habits. All of them, however, can be reliably carried out on any budget at all—depending on your inclinations, you can go with free options or invest to a degree you’re comfortable with.
Use Secure Networks and Connections
Establishments that host public WiFi have a number of options in securing their networks—so never opt for one that is completely unsecured. Networks with WPA or WPA2 encryption should be your first choice, while WEP will do in a pinch.
Networks with in-browser login portals have risen in popularity in recent years. Safety on these networks can vary quite a bit. Read a network’s terms of service (TOS) to see what protections the establishment will at least try to enforce. Some TOS are essentially waivers, while others require that users refrain from gather information and other illicit activities.
Browsers and Apps
Similarly, you should stick tor websites that use secure connections, marked by a “Secure” label or “https://” in the address bar of your browser. Some browsers or browser extensions automatically establish secure connections when possible (and block unsecured ones), but they cannot establish such connections with websites for which no option has been created.
Verifying a website’s security can be difficult when outside a browser—as is the case on many mobile apps—so if you are sending info through a mobile device, you may want to use a mobile website rather than an app. That said, if you can guarantee that an app encrypts the data sent through it, you should have no problems.
It’s worth noting that a number of messaging apps don’t encrypt their messages. If you want to keep your conversations away from prying eyes, switch to a messenger with encryption and encourage your friends and colleagues to do the same.
The relatively open nature of public networks leaves them vulnerable to malware distribution—a user acting in bad faith could use such networks to infiltrate the devices of others on the network.
As such, it’s important to have a solid backbone of antivirus and anti-malware software. There’s a range of such programs available at different price points, including reliable free options. Major operating systems have security software built in and as long as these are kept active and up-to-date, they generally provide a reliable degree of protection. Of course, if you have to update your antivirus, don’t do it on a public network.
Virtual Private Networks
Your best option for information privacy is to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN sends information through a tunnel that’s encrypted on both ends, ensuring that all data passing through your connection is safe from unwanted monitoring. VPNs can establish that tunnel using servers around the world, which can effectively conceal your IP address and physical location, making it even more difficult for you to be tracked. VPNs are available for both desk- or laptop computers and mobile devices.