So you're at your favorite coffee shop and have hopped on to the free WiFi with your tablet to check your social networks, read the latest news, and maybe take a quick peek at your bank balance while you're enjoying your latte. We're so used to having Internet access whenever and wherever we need it that we don't often stop to consider whether logging into a public network is safe.
To find out just what the risks were, we consulted Con Mallon, a mobility expert with Symantec. "For lot of people, the first thing they do when they wander into a coffee shop or hotel lobby or the airport is to flip on their WiFi and try to find a free hotspot rather than use your own data plan or buying time from a hotspot," Mallon says.
There are three major ways these free, open hotspots could get you into trouble, he explains.
The risks of free WiFi
Using public WiFi isn't unlike having a conversation in a public place: Others can overhear you. If you don't take precautions, information your devices send over a public WiFi network goes out in clear text — and anyone else on the network could easily take a look at what you're doing with just a few simple software tools.
Someone spying could easily pick up your passwords or other private information. If you use the same password on multiple sites, that could be a big problem. Mallon reports that this is the biggest concern with public hotspots.
The next potential problem is what Mallon calls a honeypot. Thieves might set up their own WiFi hotspot with an unassuming name like "Public WiFi" to tempt you to connect so they can grab up any data you send. These are easy to set up without any kind of special equipment — it could be done just using a laptop or smartphone — so you could run into them anywhere. Mallon couldn't say just how common these honeypots are, but news reports about honeypots pop up once or twice a year.
Finally, using public WiFi puts you at risk for session hijacking, in which a hacker who's monitoring your WiFi traffic attempts to take over an open session you have with an online service (like a social media site or an email client) by stealing the browser cookies the service uses to recognize who you are. Once hackers have that cookie, they can pretend to be you on these sites or even find your login and password information stored inside the cookie.
How to stay safe on public WiFi
Before you connect, be sure you know whose network you're connecting to so you don't fall prey to WiFi honeypots. If you're not sure what the public network at a business is called, ask an employee before connecting.
Check to make sure your computer or smartphone is not set up to automatically connect to unknown WiFi networks — or set it to ask you before connecting — so you're sure you know what you're connecting to when you connect.
Make sure to connect to websites via HTTPS, which encrypts anything you send and receive from the website. While a VPN service encrypts everything you send, HTTPS ensures that communication to and from a particular website is secure. To verify if you're connected via HTTPS, look at the address bar of your browser window; you should see "HTTPS" at the beginning of the web address (or, on some web browsers, a lock icon).
To encrypt all of the data you send, use a VPN service. Anyone trying to steal your data will see only encrypted data that they can't get into. There are many services that can do this, including Witopia.net and StrongVPN.com. VPN services charge a fee for their use, with pay packages ranging from day passes to year-round protection.
Whenever you can, use two-factor authentication, which requires both a password and a secondary code that changes regularly, for websites. This makes it very difficult for hackers to get at your accounts because even if they can get your password, they won't have the secondary code. Though not all services support it, many popular sites offer this level of security including Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple and Microsoft.
Make sure your computer isn't configured to share access to files. When you're at home, it may be convenient to keep things in a folder you share with other members of the household, but that's less safe when you're connecting to public WiFi.
Disable sharing in:
- Windows 8: Go to Control Panel > Network and Internet > View network status and Tasks > Change advanced sharing settings > Turn off file and printer sharing > Save changes.
- Windows 7: Go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Change advanced sharing settings > Home or Work > Turn off file and printer sharing > Save changes.
- Mac OS X: Go to System Preferences > Sharing and be sure that File Sharing doesn't have a check mark by it.
Good luck, and safe browsing!
[This feature has been updated on 10/29/2014]