Wi-Fi hotspots are popping up in cafes all around the world. It seems the first thing anyone does when they sit down with a fresh cup of coffee is search for the nearest hotspot. While most tech users are quick to connect, it may not be the smartest thing to do.
Although most wireless routers have a firewall to protect you from the internet, there is nothing in place to protect you from other users on the same network. This means you could be sacrificing your personal data for the convenience of a free connection. Worry not, Wi-Fi lovers. Follow simple steps to ensure you’re not sacrificing your personal data the next time you automatically connect to a public hotspot.
Hotspot technology is similar to the Wi-Fi set up in your own home. The internet connection comes from a router or server, which is connected to a wireless access point. The access point uses radio signals to communicate with WiFi enabled devices and provide a connection. The security setup of the router/server regulates who is able to access the hotspot.
The problem with wi-fi hotspots stems from the fact that literally anyone can set one up. Often, scammers will set up a “malicious hotspot” near a legitimate one, using the same or similar name. Then, they simply wait for users to make the mistake of connecting to the wrong hotspot and begin accessing their personal data.
If the data on your device is not encrypted, your credit card information, account passwords, messages, and photos can all be intercepted by malicious hot spots. Unfortunately, many Wi-Fi hotspots don’t protect your data, specifically those without passwords. No password means no encryption; meaning all data sent from or stored on your computer is at risk. Fortunately, the network security of a wireless connection can be viewed in network preferences, allowing you to view the level of security before you connect.
These are the three levels of network protection available, each providing a varied level of data protection:
- Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) – This is the oldest and least secure network security technology. Although these connections require a password, it’s safe to assume that your data will not be secure while using it.
- Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) – This level of secure network protection is better than WEP, but is also quickly becoming outdated, potentially putting your personal data at risk.
- Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) – This newer version of WPA utilizes wireless encryption methods that protect your data. This is the most secure form of network security technology that a connection can use.
In addition to choosing a secure connection, there are a number of adjustments you can make to the settings on your device to further protect your personal data:
Turn Off Sharing
Chances are that you use sharing to access printers or share files when you’re at home. Unfortunately, if this is left on while using public Wi-Fi anyone using the same connection can access your files, so ensure it’s off before you connect.
Enable Your Firewall
Most devices come equipped with a basic firewall, but if you’re using public Wi-Fi, it’s important to ensure that it is enabled. Firewall settings can usually be found in System Preferences under Security or Privacy.
Regular websites with HTTP at the beginning of the address exchange plain-text over wireless connections. This becomes a problem if you’re entering secure information like passwords and/or doing online banking. To ensure your personal data is secure only use websites that begin with HTTPS. This extra S means that data being sent between your computer and the web server is encrypted. Most websites, like Facebook and Gmail, automatically utilize HTTPS to keep your data safe, but it’s important to keep an eye on the address bar to ensure maximum protection.
Turn Off Wi-Fi
The best way to protect yourself is to simply turn off wi-fi if you aren’t using it, eliminating the risk of compromising your data altogether.
Although wi-fi hotspots can be convenient, it should always be used with caution. While it’s fine to use a secure WPA2 connection to go on Facebook, confidential browsing such as online banking should always be done at home. Convenience is nice, but knowing your personal data is secure is even better.
Kali Muir is an ambitious freelance writer with a BA in Communications. She was born in Canada but has since lived in Norway, Denmark, and England. Her work experience is as diverse as her past addresses, including roles in technical communication, corporate communication, marketing, and article writing. She has experience working in varied business sectors: Oil & Gas, Engineering & Technology, Clothing & Equipment Retail, and Creative Writing. Follow Kali’s professional and personal journey at www.kalimuir.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.