The sad truth is that public Wi-Fi networks are not safe. Because they aren’t secured, information shared over a public Wi-Fi network is highly vulnerable and can be intercepted easily. Even public networks that require a password can be risky, because the network is still being shared by lots of unknown people. But all hope is not lost—there are things you can do to make an outing on public Wi-Fi safer.
Pick the Right Public Wi-Fi Network
Not all public Wi-Fi networks are created equally. Some are more secure than others, and the best way to tell is how much area the network covers. Free Wi-Fi at Starbucks or McDonald’s is probably safer than the free network at the airport. It comes down to numbers—there are going to be fewer people online at Starbucks than at the airport. If you are traveling, look for smaller Wi-Fi hotspots at individual airport merchants and restaurants.
Whether you’re using your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, make sure to go into the settings and turn off all sharing settings. When you’re on a public network you don’t want your device or files to be discoverable. If you have an Apple product, go to System Preferences > Sharing and uncheck all boxes. For Windows devices, open the Control Panel and go to Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center, and select Change Advanced Sharing Settings. Then turn off network discovery, public folder sharing, and file and printer sharing.
Use a VPN
Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are a great solution if you need to use a public Wi-Fi network. These handy tools hide and encrypt the information that passes between your device and the internet. It takes a few extra steps to log into the VPN, but it’s a small hassle when compared to the potential damage if your personal data were to get hacked. You can find options that are affordable and easy to install, like NordVPN.
Keeping your information private on a public Wi-Fi network takes a little planning, but it’s worth it to avoid having your personal details stolen. Follow the best practices here, and find out about additional security measures like antivirus software and identity theft protection.
Written by Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for SafeWise.com. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her work and contributions in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, HGTV, MSN, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips. Learn more