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How to stay secure on public Wi-Fi

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August 21, 2013

Is your data is safe on open public WiFi? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Is your data is safe on open public WiFi? (Photo: Shutterstock)

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There are plenty of opportunities to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots when you're on the go these days. Coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and airports are just some of the places where you can jump online, but often these networks are open and not secure. Whether you're using a laptop, tablet or smartphone, you'll want to connect your device securely to protect your data as much as possible. Here's some simple steps you can take to help make sure your data is safe on open public Wi-Fi.

Computer networking settings

Enable your firewall, especially for public networks. In fact, Windows will enable its firewall settings by default if you tell it to during set up. If you're not sure if it's on, open Control Panel, then Windows Firewall, and make sure you're screen looks like the one below.

Turn off all sharing

To get to the network settings you'll need to change, open Network and Sharing Center from Control Panel. Then click "Change private advanced sharing settings" located in the left pane.

Then under Private, Files and printer sharing, Guest or Public, turn off network discovery. Make sure to click Save changes for them to take effect. Also turn off file and printer sharing.

Note: To turn off sharing in Mac OS X go to Sharing Options > Change Advanced Sharing Settings.

Security browser extensions

One essential browser extension I would recommend is HTTPS Everywhere from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). This allows you to have a secure connection when you visit common sites like Google, Yahoo, ebay, Amazon, and more. It also allows you to create your own XML config file to add more sites not listed. It's available for both Chrome and Firefox and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Use a VPN to connect to the hotspot

Unfortunately not all sites and search engines offer secure a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encrypted protection. This makes the data flowing through those networks available for the bad guys to see your activity. So you might want to consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots. A VPN provides a secure and private way to connect to open networks.

One of my favorites is ProXPN which is free for the basic version. However, this option limits your speed throughput to 300 kbps, which might not be enough for some users. The premium account will set you back US$6.25 per month and offers full speed and additional features. It works on Windows, Mac, and there's a mobile version for your smartphones or tablet. The process is simple: set up an account, install the software, log in, and you'll be securely connected online.

If the idea of paying for a VPN doesn't appeal to you, give Hotspot Shield a try. It's free but ad supported unless you purchase the elite version which is US$29.95 per year, which is still cheaper than ProXPN. Also, during installation be sure to do a custom install, and uncheck each of the options that will add a toolbar, change your default search engine, and home page. If you can deal with a few ads, your connection to Wi-Fi hotspots will be secure, and that's the main thing. If you're only using it on rare occasions, say at the coffee shop, the ads aren't too annoying. It works on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.

Here's an example of a Hotspot shield ad for the free version. It displays on top of the page, so it's not too intrusive.

Keep your software updated

Finally, it's important to ensure your antivirus and malware protection is up-to-date, as well as your operating system. Operating system updates not only keep your system running smoothly, but they also patch security holes. Keep in mind that nothing is 100 percent secure on the internet. But the more layers of security you add, the better protected you'll be.
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About the Author
Brian Burgess Brian Burgess resides in Minnesota. A technology enthusiast his entire life, he worked in IT for 10 years before pursuing his passion for writing. In addition to contributing to Gizmag, he’s the Editor in Chief at groovyPost.com and has written for other notable tech sites Byte, InformationWeek, and How-To Geek. Away from the keyboard, you're likely to find him listening to heavy metal, playing guitar, or watching Star Trek. All articles by Brian Burgess
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9 Comments

Just make sure that you don't use the PPTP protocol if you're using a VPN, since it's now 100% cracked. Unfortunately it's the default protocol on older versions of Windows, but you should be able to choose L2TP/IPSec with native drivers on more recent versions, or use a third-party OpenVPN implementation (like the ProXPN pictured), either of which are much more secure (for now!). Alternatively you can use SSH tunnels.

Synchro

I think this is good advice. I will direct people to this site to learn about it.

Can some of it apply to non-Windows users?

BigGoofyGuy

I would add do not access bank accounts or other sensitive sights over a wireless connection yours and especially somebody else's.

Slowburn

@Slowburn: This is the point of VPNs - they are secure enough for you to do things like that. Encrypted wifi is only a defence against those not on the network - so anyone with access can run the likes of Firesheep/WireShark and see your data, unless you're using the higher-level encryption a VPN provides.

@BigWarpGuy Yes, all these VPN protocols are available for most platforms - Mac OS X, iOS and Linux all have excellent VPN support built-in. You'll need a third party client (like TunnelBlick) to get OpenVPN on OS X, but OpenVPN is generally the most secure choice on all platforms.

Synchro

When the article summary mentioned tablets,I assumed he would talk about Android tabs.I have a Galaxy Tab 10.1 which I would be using when out and about,and need some tips on keeping myself safe.

michael_dowling

@Synchro You also have the danger of a Man In the Middle attack from your VPN provider, so it's probably best to do as little monetary (banking, credit card, Paypal) transactions online as you can when you're away from home.

Firefox extensions Perspectives and Certificate Patrol, among others, can warn you if they haven't seen a particular encryption certificate before.

Of course a reputable VPN provider is always going to be safer than some random internet kiosk or free WI-fi in a foreign cafe.

If you are traveling away from home for a while, you might want to change your email passwords before you leave, then change them back when you get home. If you have someone at home that you REALLY trust, you could have them change your email passwords for you, on a pre-arranged and regularly agreed schedule, say daily.

Wombat56

While you're playing with your settings freak out your neighbors and rename your WiFi router "FBI Surveillance" :-)

warren52nz

warren52nz my WiFi is "Virus attack site", gives the sneaks second thoughts.

Insightfool

I use HotspotShield to securely connect to public wifi ;)

Jamaica Taklova
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