You just walked into your local coffee shop, order your coffee, and want to Google something, but you’re low on your data because it is towards the end of the month. You decide to use the free Wi-Fi offered by the coffee shop, but there are two; the one you normally use and one that is free. The free one is called, “FreeWiFi,” you think no big deal I’ll use the free one, much easier than adding that annoying password that you can never remember and always must ask the girl at the counter for, who you know is rolling her eyes at you when you turn around and walk away.
A few hours later you get an alert from your credit card company, stating your card has been used on Expedia for two plane tickets to Miami, a hotel room for 4 days and a car rental. What??? This happened to someone I know. Luckily, the credit card company caught it, but my friend had to get all new credit cards, change all her passwords, and changed the alerts on her credit cards to any time a purchase more than $5.00 is made she gets a text message. She used the wrong free Wi-Fi, and happened to buy something using the credit card that was charged by Expedia.
Free Wi-Fi is a bonus, especially if you’re working from the library or airport, or if you just want to save data on your phone or laptop. Still, you do have to care about security when you’re out. Here’s how to surf safely, on any device.
9 Practice Good Internet Cleanliness
Maybe the first and biggest piece of advice we can give you, beyond software, and beyond tools that promise to protect your privacy, is to practice good internet hygiene. Avoid working with sensitive data 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 probably not the best time to do your online banking, if you know what I mean.
Of course, if you have methods to secure yourself like the ones we mention below, you can rest a little easier in this regard, but remember, you should care about security on that coffee shop network. It’s unlikely that someone’s snooping on it, but it only takes once to lead to identity theft, or worse.
8 Use the Right Networks and Avoid the Bad Ones
Not every public Wi-Fi network is created equally. For example, that “Free Airport Wi-Fi” network lurking in the background is undoubtedly worse than any Wi-Fi network provided by one of the coffee shops, stores, or retailers in the airport. Opt for those instead. You’ll appreciate the added security (although only security through obscurity, which is flimsy) as well as the likely improved performance. Oh, and in case it needs to be said, if there are questionable networks like “Free Wi-Fi Here!” you should probably not use them.
7 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, and so on. You can turn to Google Places, Yelp, or even good old FourSquare to find those passwords.
Alternatively, there’s nothing wrong with just asking at the airport information desk, library desk, or coffee shop counter, but if you want to be sneaky, we’ve covered more than a few tricks to get that premium, exclusive wi-fi and obscure yourself from the rest of the masses using the public networks.
6 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 or mobile device. Nevertheless, 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. Mac users, take the extra step and set AirDrop to contacts-only. You should do this anyway, but now’s a good time.
Then, automate those settings so your machine is open when you’re at home or on a trusted network, and then automatically switches to a more secure setup when you’re not.
5 When You Aren’t Using Your Wi-Fi, Turn It Off
Okay, I said it, turn off your Wi-Fi when you’re not using it. 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, and it’ll also save your battery.
You can take this a step further and download local copies of your email and documents to work with when you don’t have a connection, or use Google Drive offline (or a similar service) to work without internet access, or just grab that movie or playlist to listen to when you’re not connected at all.
4 Keep Your Antivirus and Antimalware Up to Date
If you ever use public, untrusted networks, make sure your computer is running an antimalware utility and complementary antivirus utility as well.
For the former, Webroot is our favorite, and regularly comes out on top of tests. For the latter, you have options. We like Malwarebytes for Windows and Sophos for macOS (it’s also available for Windows). Whatever you choose to use, keep it up to date, and keep it running—especially when you’re out. Public Wi-Fi networks have been known to inject ads while you browse, and we all know how bad malvertising can be.
3 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.
You probably already use an ad blocker, but a Webroot offers an extension for all browsers that will tell you if a website is safe or not and it will also block the page before it can open and protects you from same-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.
2 Use a VPN
The best protection from an untrusted network when you must use one is direct, encrypted access to a trusted one. That means using a VPN when you’re out. 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, using one makes sure that all your data is encrypted between you and the service provider, locking out anyone on the same network as you who might be snooping around.
However, if you roll your own at home and connect to it, the trusted network we’re talking about is your home network and your home ISP. It’ll likely be slower, but at least you know the equivalent experience is you surfing the web or working from home. If you use a VPN provider, you’ll need to make sure they’re trustworthy, don’t leak your IP address, or leak any other information about you. That goes double for mobile VPNs, which can be riddled with malware and soak up private information while you use them.
1 Bring Your Own Wi-Fi Instead
Really the best protection from an untrusted network is not using it at all. Of course, this isn’t a way to make public Wi-Fi any safer, but consider ditching the public Wi-Fi entirely and bringing your own. Whether you use a mobile hotspot like a MiFi, or you just tether to your smartphone and use your wireless carrier’s data, both approaches allow you to avoid 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. 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.