Did you know that February 5th is Safer Internet Day? This worldwide event aims to draw attention to the ever-important issue of online safety, including cyberbullying, digital security and even offensive or illegal content. This year’s theme, ‘Together for a better internet’, encourages individuals to create a better internet by working on the ‘4 Rs’: Respect, Responsibility, Reasoning and Resilience. We decided to pitch in by shining the light on one aspect of the internet that may slip our minds until we need it – public WiFi networks.
Public WiFi networks can be a blessing – whether you’re quickly taking care of some business on your laptop while you have a coffee, or you’re sending some holiday snaps home while on a trip abroad. However, as convenient as that free WiFi access is, there can be security risks associated with using public WiFi networks that you should know about. You don’t need to stop using public WiFi altogether but there are a few things you should keep in mind before you connect. We’ve put together a handy guide to help you stay safe while you surf the ‘net – all you need is a little bit of reasoning and resilience.
The main thing to keep in mind with public WiFi is that the connection may not be as secure as the one you have at home or at work. This is particularly true if you’re connecting to an open WiFi network set up by an unknown, malicious third party. Basically, if you connect to a WiFi network that you don’t recognise, there’s a risk that the information you send or receive over the connection is being accessed by someone else. In worst-case scenarios, this could lead to a malware infection on your device or even identity fraud.
It’s best stick to WiFi that’s provided by local businesses, airports or official town/city initiatives. Some of these networks may not be truly public – for example, many coffee shops, restaurants, hotels and pubs provide WiFi access to their customers – but it’s a small price to pay for some peace of mind that you’re connecting to a WiFi network that isn’t a front for ulterior motives. You can find a database of WiFi networks all over Australia (plus the rest of the world) on Service WiFi Space.
Even if you’re connecting to a fairly reliable WiFi network, there are some online activities that should be saved for a time when you have private internet access, such as online banking, accessing MyGov or any other activity which involves your sensitive personal data. Most banking and government websites use HTTPS (the more secure version of HTTP) but it’s not just a matter of connection security – it’s physical security. After all, you’re out in public – do you really want to be punching in your online banking password in a crowd of people where someone may look over your shoulder?
If you’re using public WiFi regularly, one way you can protect yourself is by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) while browsing the internet. Using a VPN means there will be stronger encryption on the data flowing through your internet connection, which means that even if your data is accessed, a hacker may simply not bother with the lengthy decryption process in order to make it useable. In fact, if you’re using a work laptop or remotely connecting to your office’s network, you may find that your IT department forces you to use a VPN, otherwise you can’t connect at all (it’s the responsible thing to do).
There’s a wide range of affordable VPN services available in Australia and using them is as easy as opening up an app on your device and hitting a button before you hop online as browse as you normally would. Check out this list of VPN recommendations from Comparitech to learn which VPN services perform well in Australia.
Finally, once you’ve done what you need to do on the WiFi, it’s best to just switch it off. The same goes for “sharing” features such as Bluetooth or AirDrop. Staying connected indefinitely doesn’t have any benefits, whereas switching off will save your device some battery life and make it impossible for any dodgy network activity to take place. Most smartphones have a WiFi on/off switch in their settings and larger devices such as laptops may have a physical button or switch that you can use to quickly enable or disable WiFi access. If you’re not sure about your device, check the manufacturer’s website for support information.
What are your top tips for using public WiFi safely? Share them in the comments.