Public “WiFi hotspots” are everywhere, and that is a good thing – but also just a little bit dangerous.
WiFi hotspots are where you can find a wireless connection for you to use with your laptop, tablet, or smartphone to connect to the Internet. Hotels, restaurants, bookstores, and our Pawling Library all have WiFi hotspots, and the cable companies have formed a nationwide network of public WiFi hotspots.
WiFi Safety Rule of Thumb: There is no privacy at a public WiFi hotspot. Most public hotspots are free, or free-ish, and they provide a very handy way to get connected to your email, work calendar, or anything else on the Internet that you may need. However, bad guys can create fake hotspots – that mimic the legitimate ones – and then they can essentially listen in on what you are doing to steal your passwords and other private data.
If you use public WiFi hotspots, then you must use them with care to protect your own privacy. Now, please don’t panic about this. It is pretty easy to protect yourself – you just need to make sure that you are actively cautious whenever you’re using public WiFi by remembering these rules.
1. Be aware that you are in public. Even if you can’t see anyone else on a computer, a bad guy could be using a phone in their pocket to capture other users’ data going back and forth.
2. Look for the “s” and the padlock! If you’re visiting websites while you’re at public hotspot, make sure that all of the web addresses begin “https:\\”. The “s” is important, as it indicates that you’re using a securely encrypted version of the website. Encryption means that the data transmitted between you and the website is privately encoded so that a surreptitious watcher will not be able to read it. If encryption is working as it should, then your web browser will show a little padlock icon near the address.
3. Don’t use passwords, credit card information, online bank accounts, or any other private data while you are on a public hotspot. If you must use any password, or bank or private data, BE ABSOLUTELY POSITIVE that you are on an “HTTPS” protected page. But it would be better to wait to use private data when you’re back at home or in your office.
4. Use the built-in security features on your computer, tablet or smartphone. Make sure that the built-in firewall is turned on and, if you have anti-malware software, that it is turned on and up to date.
5. Remember that all public networks are a security risk. I’m repeating a bit, but it’s important: Do avoid connecting to banks, shopping sites – which may have your credit card information – or any other sites that may accidentally transmit or give access to your private data in a public place.
6. If you’re a Comcast customer, use the WiFi app that Comcast/Xfinity provides. Xfinity provides an app (for Android and Apple IOS) that will assure that you are connected to the secure XFINITYWIFI network when you’re out in public. Your data will be encrypted between your device and the hotspot so interlopers can’t “see” it. For other cable companies, check to see if they offer something similar.
7. Above all, use common sense. Using a public hotspot is a bit like shouting across the street. Anyone walking by might hear what you’re saying. On a public hotspot, even someone that you can’t see – sitting in a hidden alcove or in a car parked outside somewhere – could be listening in to your WiFi data traffic.
But now, with this all in mind go ahead and enjoy the abundance of public WiFi hotspots. They are extremely handy, and with just a little vigilance, they can be safe to use, too.
Mike Pepper, The Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at (845) 855-5824, or www.PawlingComputerGuy.com.