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Staying Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Most people need to be working mobile these days. Free public Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient for everyone, but security can be an issue. Here's how to minimize the risk, whether you use a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.


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Practice Good Internet Hygiene

Avoid working with sensitive data at least online when you’re using unsecured, public Wi-Fi. It may be a good time to check the news or read your favorite blogs, but it’s definitely not the best time to do your online banking, if you catch my drift. 

Use the Right Networks (and Avoid the Bad Ones)

Not every public Wi-Fi network is created equally.  For example, the network labeled "Free Airport Wi-Fi" is probably the worst.  You are better off using one of the coffee shops, stores or retailers in the airport.  

You can try tools like WiFox to map out networks at your airport and choose which ones to use and when.  Oh and by the way I don't think we need to say it but DO NOT user any Wi-Fi Networks that say "Free Wi-Fi Here!" or "Absolutely Free Internet!" 

Use Semi-Open Wi-Fi Networks Instead

You may not always have a choice when it comes to what network you use, but if you do have a choice, consider “semi-open” Wi-Fi instead of completely open networks, consider ones that serve airport lounges, nearby coffee shops that have hidden SSIDs or put their passwords on receipts instead of giving them out freely. Sometimes tools like Wi-Fox, which we mentioned above, have those in their database. You can also turn to Google Places, Yelp, or even good old FourSquare to find those passwords.​

Turn Off File Sharing and AirDrop Options

You may not be able to control who’s on what network you’re using, but you can control your computer. Regardless of if you’re using a Windows PC or a Mac, your computer probably has some file sharing options that assume you’re on a trusted network, with other trusted computers. Turn off file sharing in Windows and macOS, enable your system’s built-in firewalls, and keep internet-connected apps and services to a minimum. 

Turn Wi-Fi Off When Not In Use

One of the basic rules of security is that if you don’t need something connected to a network, don’t connect it. When you’re finished working online, turn Wi-Fi off on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It’s a nice security habit to get used to when you’re using untrusted networks (if you have to use them at all), and it’ll also save your battery. 

Keep Your Antivirus and Antimalware Up to Date

This list is in no particular order, but we’re willing to bet some of you may have expected to see this tip sooner. If you ever use public, untrusted networks, make sure your computer is running some kind of antimalware and antivirus. 

Install Privacy-Protecting Browser Extensions

Antimalware is great, but it only really protects you from things you download and execute, barring malvertising or malware winding up on your system through no fault of your own. The next step is to fortify your browser with tools designed to protect your privacy. 

If you dont have an ad blocker a good one to have is uBlock Origin or Disconnect. They protect your from network attacks like session hijacking and clickjacking—both of which are still real threats, and can give people access to things like your Amazon account or Facebook account, even if you’re browsing securely.

Use HTTPS Everywhere You Can

Anywhere HTTPS works, use it—and HTTPS Everywhere, from the Electronic Frontier Foundation—can make sure you do. Of course, not every site supports it, but if it’s available, the add-on will try to bump you over to the secure version of the site, and if it’s not there, you’ll roll back to the plain HTTP version.

Use a VPN (or Roll Your Own)

The best protection from an untrusted network when you have to use one, I think, is direct, encrypted access to a trusted one. That means using a VPN when you’re out and about. Whether you use a third-party VPN service provider or you roll your own VPN at home and connect to it when you’re out and about, using one makes sure that all of your data is encrypted between you and the service provider, locking out anyone on the same network as you who might be snooping around.

Bring Your Own Wi-Fi Instead

The best protection from an untrusted network is not using it at all. Of course, this isn’t a real way to make public Wi-Fi any safer, but if you can, consider ditching the public Wi-Fi entirely and bringing your own. Whether you use a mobile hotspot like a MiFi or a Karma, or you just tether to your smartphone and use your wireless carrier’s data, both approaches get you off of the sketchy public Wi-Fi at the airport while you’re waiting for your layover and onto cellular data instead.

Of course, prices can vary, and it’s not in the budget for everyone, but some have pay-as-you-use options, like our favorite, Karma. If you’re not down for buying and carrying another device though, you can just use your smartphone—just keep an external battery pack handy, and watch your data caps while you work.

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