In this era of the gig economy and remote work, it’s more common than ever that people are carrying out important work not in the office, but on the go. Whether it’s paying bills online, sending sensitive documents to your boss, or booking a flight on the fly, there are plenty of occasions when public wifi networks are helpful, especially if you travel or work abroad often.
However, blithely logging on to public wifi networks—such as in in airports, coffee shops, hotels—and carrying on as you would at home, isn’t advisable. There are certain activities you should refrain from when connected to a public wifi network, as these networks do make you vulnerable to certain hacks and traps. However, there is no reason to completely avoid them. Cybersecurity, as one expert wrote in The Guardian, is all about finding a balance: “Real security choices actually depend on two other things: the value of what you’re protecting, and the perceived risk. For example, you’d expect a jewellery shop to spend more on security than, say, a patisserie. The question is not how much security you can get, but how much you need.”
The primary risk when it comes to using public wifi is that a hacker can penetrate the network, and be able to watch what you’re doing, including figuring out your passwords and tracking your cookies. That means watching every website, keystroke, and email you write. The risk of this is obviously higher in high traffic areas—a café in NYC, for example—but as Lifehacker points out, the risk is not always visible to you: “Just because it seems like you’re the only person in the area doesn’t mean you’re the only person on the network, and this is especially true for larger places like libraries, airports, hotels, or convention centers with one large network that spans the entire area. Is your local coffee shop or favorite bookstore a haunt for black hats? Probably not—but it doesn’t take a skilled hand to sit on a wireless network for giggles and pull down as many packets as they have time to collect.”
So how can you avoid being the victim of a public wifi trap, beyond ensuring that your software and antivirus programs are always up to date?
The following steps should keep you more secure on a public wifi:
Use a VPN: A VPN will encrypt your traffic so that a hacker can’t see your browser traffic at all. If you’re visiting your online bank accounts or doing sensitive research, you should definitely do this, but it’s not necessary if all you’re doing is checking the news.
Visit secure sites: If you’re not able to use a VPN for some reason, make sure you’re only visiting websites that have secure https connections (rather than http). As The Guardian’s expert points out, “the EFF’s browser extension HTTPS Everywhere makes this easier.”
Turn off wifi when not in use: It’s a good idea to disable wifi when you’re done working on your smartphone or laptop. This is because your phone and devices can often be joining networks without your knowledge. Sometimes, these networks are traps—i.e. named something very general like “Free Wifi” so that your phone thinks it’s been connected to it before.
Turn off file sharing and Airdrop options: Having file share enabled in a busy, public space is basically inviting people to root around in your computer. As LifeHacker explains, there is a safer approach: “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. Mac users, take the extra step and set AirDrop to contacts-only. You should do this anyway, but now’s a good time.”