Danger Zone: Free Wifi Hotspots

Category: Security , Wireless

Coffee shops, restaurants, bookstores, airports, hotels, and other public places often provide free access to wireless Internet hotspots. But along with that convenience comes the danger of being digitally mugged. Here are some some simple tips you can use to make sure you're not broadcasting your business to snoops and hackers while using wifi hotspots...

Understanding Wifi Security Risks

While you're sipping that latte and working on a business plan, someone at the next table, or in a car outside, may be stealing sensitive data from your laptop through the same wireless hotspot you are using. As you browse your email, someone nearby may be reading along with you. And you may never know your digital pocket has been picked. This is why it's important to understand wireless hotspot security and use it wisely.

Unsecured wireless networks are convenient - you don't have to enter a password, just fire up your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and let it connect to the wide-open wireless network. But anyone within range of that network can do the same, and without an encrypted connection you may be vulnerable to data theft.

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It's also a good idea to enable the firewall built into your laptop, even when using secured hotspots. A personal firewall can protect your data against other hotspot users. If you are connecting via wifi on a Windows computer, choose the "Public" option when asked what type of network you're on.

I also recommend that you disable file and printer sharing on your laptop before going out in public with it. Whatever data you allow to be shared on a network is available to other users of a wireless hotspot.

Extra Layers of Wifi Security

A few years ago, I met with a group of Internet professionals, all of us sporting laptops with wireless connections to the hotel's access point. On the second day of the conference, one of the attendees put up a slide showing logins and passwords from a dozen of the attendees. Needless to say, many jaws dropped open! He was running a "wifi sniffer" to spy on the internet traffic floating around in the air. Fortunately, he was a trusted colleague, and was nice enough to tell us that we were caught with our virtual pants down.

If you use any website that requires you to login with a username and password, or has a form where you must enter personal information, look for the "https" in the website address. As long as you're on a page with an address that begins with https, the data you send and receive is protected from sniffers and snoopers. That little "s" is your assurance that your connection is encrypted. It's becoming more common, but not all sites use it. (Some have asked why AskBobRankin.com does not use the https protocol. The answer is in the first sentence of this paragraph. There's no username, password, or credit card needed to read my articles.)

If you use Outlook, THunderbird or another desktop email program, adjust your account settings to require a secure connection when sending or receiving mail. Check with your Internet provider for help setting up a secure email connection.

Your connection is almost always encrypted when using online banking, or making a purchase on the web. But other venues, such as online forums or your web-based email may NOT use an encrypted connection. Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail/Outlook.com, and Facebook are fully encrypted, so you're safe there. (For mobile users, the Gmail app on Android smartphones and tablets is secure, as is the Mail app on Apple iPhone/iPad.)

What does all this mean? If you don't see HTTPS in the address bar of your browser, anything you read or post online, as well as any email you send or receive while using a public wifi connection may be exposed. If you enter a username and password on a website that doesn't offer HTTPS encryption, it's the equivalent to holding up a sign with your login credentials.

Remote Access and Other Wifi Security Tips

If your employer has a Virtual Private Network (VPN), use it for all communications when on wifi. A VPN encrypts all data passing through it so that even if data is intercepted it cannot be read. If you're not on company business, use one of the free remote access services to protect your data against thieves. You can use these tools to connect to your home computer, and do your surfing through your own secure internet connection. Learn about the options in my related article Free Remote Access and Screen Sharing.

Consider disabling your device's WiFi adapter when it's not in use. This prevents your device from automatically connecting to any wireless hotspot you may pass. On smartphones, this will be found in the Settings dialog. Most laptops have a button or switch that makes enabling and disabling a WiFi adapter quick and easy. You'll also conserve battery power by turning off the WiFi when it's not needed.

Oh, and there are the "shoulder surfers" to watch out for. Just like when you're entering your PIN code at an ATM, you need to keep an eye open for anyone who might be glancing over your shoulder while you hunt and peck. I always use two fingers when entering my pin or password... one presses the correct key and other is a decoy. So even if someone was watching from across the street with binoculars, it's almost impossible to steal a password.

Wireless hotspots are essential these days. But just as you wouldn't sit in a cafe with your wallet open on the table, you shouldn't leave your laptop or other mobile device wide open to thieves. If you must use public wifi in an airport, coffee shop, or hotel room, awareness and encryption are paramount. If the web address displayed by your browser starts with HTTPS, you're safe. If not, everything is potentially exposed to hackers or snoops in the vicinity.

Do you have something to say about wifi hotspot security? Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Danger Zone: Free Wifi Hotspots"

Posted by:

Ken
20 Dec 2016

Bob

Just downloaded the Driver Update. Thanks for that.
Have a good Xmas and a Happy New Year.

Ken.


Posted by:

Bob Stromberg
20 Dec 2016

On Windows computers, it's not so much the "Public" option that protects your computer. It's "network discovery" (along with the as-mentioned "file and printer sharing" option). The details vary a bit with the Windows version, but basically:

1. Find the list of networks your computer has remembered.

2. Assign the networks you don't trust to the "public" profile.

3. Assign the networks you DO trust (or, perhaps, MUST trust because of a work requirement) to the "private" network definition.

NOTE 1: These names vary from Windows version to Windows version. The "private" network definition might be called "Home or Office."

NOTE 2: Only trust a network if you trust EVERY device that connects to the network.

4. FINAL, ESSENTIAL STEP: Check how the "public" and "private" network definitions are configured. Tighten up the options on the "public" network -- especially "network discovery" and "file and printer sharing."

Remember, "public" is not trusted, kinda like a park bench.

I wish Microsoft had named these network definitions "trusted" and "untrusted." And had used consistent terminology (sometimes the definitions are called "locations").

And I wish that computer manufacturers would configure the network definitions properly.

macOS is different: There is ONE set of system preferences, and they don't seem to have one setting for "network discovery." (oh, wait, I think it's "stealth" option on the firewall). macOS does have a bunch of settings for "sharing."

I know of no similar settings for iOS and Android and Chrome and Linux. But there might be....


Posted by:

Bob Stromberg
20 Dec 2016

On Windows computers, it's not so much the "Public" option that protects your computer. It's "network discovery" (along with the as-mentioned "file and printer sharing" option). The details vary a bit with the Windows version, but basically:

1. Find the list of networks your computer has remembered.

2. Assign the networks you don't trust to the "public" profile.

3. Assign the networks you DO trust (or, perhaps, MUST trust because of a work requirement) to the "private" network definition.

NOTE 1: These names vary from Windows version to Windows version. The "private" network definition might be called "Home or Office."

NOTE 2: Only trust a network if you trust EVERY device that connects to the network.

4. FINAL, ESSENTIAL STEP: Check how the "public" and "private" network definitions are configured. Tighten up the options on the "public" network -- especially "network discovery" and "file and printer sharing."

Remember, "public" is not trusted, kinda like a park bench.

I wish Microsoft had named these network definitions "trusted" and "untrusted." And had used consistent terminology (sometimes the definitions are called "locations").

And I wish that computer manufacturers would configure the network definitions properly.

macOS is different: There is ONE set of system preferences, and they don't seem to have one setting for "network discovery." (oh, wait, I think it's "stealth" option on the firewall). macOS does have a bunch of settings for "sharing."

I know of no similar settings for iOS and Android and Chrome and Linux. But there might be....


Posted by:

Steve
20 Dec 2016

Very informative (I think) but have some patience with me. Think of a one year-old brain in an 85 year-old body. But seriously, I've learnt a great deal in such a short while.


Posted by:

Stuart Berg
20 Dec 2016

Whenever I use a public WiFi (Windows laptop and Android phone) I use the free Betternet (https://www.betternet.co/) to at least encrypt between my computer and their servers before my communication goes to where it's going. I know it's not perfect, but at least it protects at my end where the chance is greatest to be hacked.


Posted by:

john silberman
20 Dec 2016

I use Private Internet Access (a VPN service) anytime I connect to public WiFi.


Posted by:

Russ
20 Dec 2016

The Opera Browser has a free VPN option. all my laptops and tablets are set to use Opera online. I see others are using Betternet, a free VPN option. Both Opera (set up correctly with VPN) or Betternet are excellent security when using somebody elses Wi-fi. Opera is easier to use, and when I test speed, it does not seem to slow down the internet speed. Betternet frequently is slower than the Opera VPN. I recommend Opera and it's free VPN


Posted by:

InLionSk8r
20 Dec 2016

Been using Hotspot Shield (free version) for a couple of years on my computers and tablets, for a more secure connection when on public WiFi. It's improved over that time, but still has some quirks... (like when Google comes up as the Columbia or German version, even though USA is clearly indicated in my Settings, as the target IP location.) As with other free VPN software, it often opens some advertising on a web page or a video when first connecting. But as when watching free, over-the-air commercial TV, we've gotta expect a tradeoff to cover expenses. More annoying are times it can't connect to their servers or drops the connection (oh... and there's generally a minor performance hit). For the most part, I find the glitches to be worth the additional piece-of-mind.


Posted by:

Rick Stephan
20 Dec 2016

I suspect that over 90% of mobile device users leave their WIFI always enabled and always connecting to public hotspts. IOS indirectly encourages this by nagging you with "Location accuracy will be improved by enabling WIFI".


Posted by:

Paul
20 Dec 2016

Many home routers now have a built in VPN server, you can enable this and then connect to it when on the road for exatra security.


Posted by:

bryan
21 Dec 2016

It's always been my habit to disable wifi and use my phone's cellular connection (personal hotspot) when actually doing something requiring financial information or passwords. My public browsing is mostly (almost exclusively?) just reading or game playing. If it comes time to use a password and/or buy something, I figure it's worth the couple meg to conduct the whole session at 4G and then switch back to the local wifi. Am I doing anything other than wasting my time/data allotment?


Posted by:

rocketride
21 Dec 2016

I just plain don't use public WiFi. I got a 4G Hotspot because my fiancee doesn't 'do' computers and has no network at her house, so I just use that everywhere except at my home or work.


Posted by:

AL
30 Dec 2016

very helpful information. thank you very much


Posted by:

Stacy
17 Jan 2017

Its simple to protect yourself on public wifi. Just get a Vpn like purevn (this is the one I use). They will protect you and your sensitive information from snoopers


Posted by:

Stacy
17 Jan 2017

Its simple to protect yourself on public wifi. Just get a Vpn like purevpn (this is the one I use). They will protect you and your sensitive information from snoopers


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