Accessing the internet isn’t normally a problem when you’re inside the confines of your own home—it’s secure, it’s easy to connect to, and it’s relatively uncongested—unless the whole family is streaming Netflix on five separate devices. When you venture out though, it’s a different story. You can access Wi-Fi in more places than ever, enabling you to keep in touch or catch up with work from wherever you happen to be, but getting online isn’t quite as simple, or as safe, as it is with your home network.
A public Wi-Fi network is inherently less secure than your personal, private one, because you don’t know who set it up, or who else is connecting to it. Ideally, you wouldn’t ever have to use it; better to use your smartphone as a hotspot instead. But for the times that’s not practical or even possible, you can still limit the potential damage from public Wi-Fi with a few simple steps.
This relates to the previous point, but wherever possible stick to well-known networks, like Starbucks. These Wi-Fi networks are likely less suspect because the people and companies operating them are already getting money out of you.
No public Wi-Fi network is absolutely secure—that depends as much on who’s on it with you as who provides it—but in terms of relative safety, known quantities generally beat out that random public Wi-Fi network that pops up on your phone in a shopping mall, or a network operated by a third party that you’ve never heard of. These may well be legit, but if any passerby can hook up for free, what’s the benefit for the people running the network? How are they making money? There’s no hard or fast rule to apply, but using a bit of common sense doesn’t hurt.
If you can, stick to as few public Wi-Fi networks as possible. In a new city, connect to Wi-Fi in a store or coffee shop you’ve used before, for example. The more networks you sign up to, the more likely the chances that you’ll stumble across one that isn’t treating your data and browsing as carefully as it should be.
Google Chrome lets you know when the site you’re visiting uses an unencrypted HTTP connection rather than an encrypted HTTPS encryption by labeling the former “Not Secure.” Heed that warning, especially on public Wi-Fi. When you browse over HTTPS, people on the same Wi-Fi network as you can’t snoop on the data that travels between you and the server of the website you’re connecting to. Over HTTP? It’s relatively easy for them to watch what you’re doing.
Be very wary of signing up for public Wi-Fi access if you’re getting asked for a bunch of personal details, like your email address or your phone number. If you absolutely have to connect to networks like this, stick to places you trust (see above) and consider using an alternative email address that isn’t your primary one.
Stores and restaurants that do this want to be able to recognize you across multiple Wi-Fi hotspots and tailor their marketing accordingly, so it’s up to you to decide whether the trade-off is worth it for some free internet access.
Again, sign up for as few different public Wi-Fi platforms as you can. Does your phone or cable carrier offer free Wi-Fi hotspots in your current location, for example? If you can get connected through a service that you’re already registered for, then that’s usually preferable to giving up your details to yet another group of companies.
When you’re on a public network around strangers, you’ll want to cut off the features that enable frictionless file sharing on your devices. On a PC, that means going to Network and Sharing Center, then Change advanced sharing settings, then Turn off file and printer sharing. For Macs, go to System Preferences, then Sharing, and unselect everything. Then head to Finder, click on AirDrop, and select Allow me to be discovered by: No One. For iOS, just find AirDrop in the Control Center and turn it off. And voila!. No one nearby can grab your files, or send you one you don’t want.