Public Wi-Fi: How to Connect Safely

Connecting to public Wi-Fi is not as simple as selecting an open Wi-Fi, and can be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. Instead, you must realize that there are safety factors that must be considered before you can proceed to merrily surf your way through the Internet. That does not mean, however, that if one follows the required safety procedures they must forego their journey through cyberspace. Additionally, to most of us using computers today, we are aware that the majority of these rules pertain to Microsoft Windows laptop computers, which are perpetually the target of hackers and, as a result, are known to be sieves when it comes to computer viruses and malware. However, just to be safe, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android users may also wish to follow some of these rules.

Rule #1: Secure Your Laptop — Especially in Airports

Public Wi-Fi: How to Connect SafelyWhile I am aware that it doesn’t directly pertain to a Wi-Fi connection, the first rule, obviously, is to secure your laptop or other electronic device; without it, connecting to a Wi-Fi connection is a moot point. True, one would think that anyone capable of using such a device would automatically realize that others may wish to obtain one and therefore keep it with their person, but I have witnessed many people who must assume that others are as honest as they are. The reason I bring this point up is that, just last week, I was on a business trip that required me to make my way through two major airport hubs. It was during one of my layovers that I noted a number of people who would leave their laptop, tablet, smartphone, or other device plugged into a wall outlet while walking away to purchase food, a drink, or to take a potty break. Watching these individuals reminded me of a TV news program I watched last year in which it was estimated that some one-half million devices — or more — were lost or stolen in airports each year.

However, if you do happen to be traveling alone and need to recharge your laptop computer for an upcoming flight, I would suggest that you purchase a laptop lock and use it to secure your device to a piece of airport furniture. For those using a tablet, smartphone, or other device, I would ask a fellow traveler who is traveling to your destination and looks honest, to keep an eye on your toy while you leave the waiting area to take care of your business. I know that this is taking somewhat of a risk, but I have actually placed my smartphone right next to a fellow passenger to watch for me. Of course, the person I asked just happened to be a soldier who was returning from overseas and was sitting with several of his fellow officers. Another usually safe guess would be an elderly person who is booked on your flight.

Rule #2: Check the Name of the Wi-Fi Hotspot

This next rule requires you to use a little common sense and goes a long way toward protecting your computer system and important data. First, are you in a spot that advertises that it is offering a Wi-Fi hotspot? If you are, make sure that the name of the hotspot fits the business. This isn’t difficult. For example, I sometimes stop by a local fast food restaurant where free Wi-Fi is offered for its customers. The name of the restaurant and the name of the connection are the same. However, when I connect, I am also offered another connection named ‘mygolfgamesucks.’ Looking at the name, I realize that this is not the connection I want and is, in fact, an unsecured, non-business network that just happens to be within the range of my computer.

While this network is obviously not the one I want, what should you do if you are unsure of the network that is owned by the business or establishment? The answer is simple: just ask someone. Sometimes it is amazing how helpful employees or fellow customers can be. In a society where we are cautious of strangers, we must also recognize that most people are good folks who are willing to help.

Rule #3: HTTPS

When possible, log in to websites using the HTTPS protocol. The S in HTTP stands for secure, and it encrypts the data that is being sent between the website and your browser and prohibits anyone from seeing your data as it is being transmitted. Sadly, however, not every website supports HTTPS.

For those road warriors who frequent Wi-Fi hotspots and spend time surfing Facebook, you can secure your connection by taking advantage of the built-in HTTPS setting found within Facebook. To use it, however, you must enable it since it is set by default to be disabled.

Rule #4: Turn off Wi-Fi when Done

This next rule is also just a matter of common sense. It is simply that, once you are finished using your device — be it a laptop, tablet, or smartphone — you remember to turn off the WI-Fi connection. First, it will save precious battery power, and second, your device will not be able to auto connect to any rogue network. This procedure is usually quite easy, and only requires the user to click a key in order to disconnect and disable a Wi-Fi connection.

Rule #5: Encrypt Your Files

To encrypt a folder or file using Windows Vista or Windows 7, do the following:

  • Right-click the folder or file you want to encrypt, and then click Properties.
  • Click the General tab, and then click Advanced.
  • Select the Encrypt contents to secure data check box, and then click OK.

Comments welcome.

CC licensed Flickr photo above shared by martymadrid

Article Written by

I have been writing for LockerGnome since relocating to Missouri seven years ago, where I continue to be a technology enthusiast who enjoys playing with the newest and latest gadgets.

  • http://twitter.com/CaptRobLee Robert Lee

    Excellent helpful article. WIFI is necessary today, but we need to be smart users too. 

  • Nathan Osman

    You can safely browse non-encrypted (standard HTTP) pages if you are using an SSH tunnel. The basic idea behind an SSH tunnel is that you connect securely to a remote server and then route Internet traffic through the secure “tunnel” you’ve created. The data traveling over the wireless network is encrypted until it reaches the remote server where the original request is routed to the appropriate location. However, all of that being said, you need access to a server running the SSH daemon in order to do this. Companies like Linode offer cheap VPS servers you can rent for this purpose.

  • Millerc365

    I am using WIndows 7 Home Premium
    ANd it doesnt allow me to encrypt folders.

    Is that the way WIndows is set up for this version?

  • http://www.facebook.com/randall.lind Randall Lind

    What ticks me off is McDonald’s by me just say ATT WIFI or some places just says public. It would be nice if companies would use there name. 

    • Zombie

      *their

  • Cameron Ryan

    Many companies don’t encrypt their website because they don’t know how important that can be. Imagine if PayPal was HTTP O.o

  • http://twitter.com/technoblogical Technoblogical

    Only the pro versions of Windows have encryption. Also, with the wireless on Windows, When you connect, don’t check the box that says connect automatically.

  • Wat?

    Generaly good advice for the average user, but in this context, why would you encrypt your files as mentioned in point #5? Surely you shouldn’t be sharing them on a public wifi network in the first place.

  • mikesir87

    One more thing… if you have access to a work or personal VPN, use it.  All data is encrypted and hidden from prying eyes.  

  • Guest123werr

    you didnt say HOW TO connect SAFELY. wasted my time reading it. I thought you gonna say connect trough something rather than basic browser or change something from setting or install something for extra secury, but none mentioned. we know these too basic points. 

  • The Doctor

    Make sure your VPN tunnel is not set up for split-tunneling before you rely on it to protect your Internet traffic. If it is, only traffic to your company’s servers are encrypted within the VPN tunnel.

  • Kyle Kimberlin

    For a free personal VPN, check out HotSpotShield via cnet at http://goo.gl/wzah. I use it in coffeehouses, etc.

    The Home version of Windows 7 doesn’t have encryption enabled. It’s there but grayed out. Why? Because the software guys at Microsoft think it’s funny to hide things in Windows that will aggravate us later.

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