Public Wi-Fi allows anyone to access the Internet freely and is available widely today. Found in places such as cafés, malls, airports and hotels, public Wi-Fi has brought a world of convenience to our lives. However, if you choose to connect to public Wi-Fi, here’s a word of caution: nothing is really private on public Wi-Fi, even if it is password-protected.
There are risks involved when connecting to public Wi-Fi. By connecting to the same Wi-Fi network as you, cyber criminals can eavesdrop on what you are browsing on the web to sniff out sensitive information like usernames and passwords. They can also set up bogus Wi-Fi networks to trick you into connecting to what you think is a legitimate network.
If you find yourself in a situation where you really must connect to public Wi-Fi, follow these tips to protect yourself and your personal information:
Don’t access sensitive information
When using public Wi-Fi, avoid accessing bank accounts and logging in to websites that require sensitive personal information like banking details, NRIC, home address, phone number and login details. It’s risky to perform any login activity on public Wi-Fi.
Always use HTTPS
No matter what type of Internet connection you are using, it is a good practice to check that the websites you visit use HTTPS, especially if they require you to key in sensitive information such as your login credentials. This means that data passing between your device and the server of the website you are visiting is encrypted, making it harder for someone on the same network to snoop on it.
To check if a website is using HTTPS, look for the padlock icon in the address bar of your browser.
You can also consider using the browser extension ‘HTTPS Everywhere’, which automatically chooses the secure HTTPS option of supported websites.
Disable File Sharing
When you’re at home, you may share files with other devices connected to your home network. Before you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, disable file sharing on your devices, otherwise you may be allowing anyone connected to the same public network to access your files or send you files you do not want, including malware.
Here’s how you can disable file sharing on your devices:
PC: Go to Network and Sharing Center > Select Change advanced sharing settings > Go to Network Profiles > Select Turn off file and printer sharing.
Mac: Go to System Preferences > Select Sharing > Deselect everything. Go to Finder > Select AirDrop > Select Allow me to be discovered by: No One
Android: Visit your device manufacturer’s website to find out more about turning off file sharing options on your device.
iOS: Go to Settings > Tap General > Tap AirDrop > Tap Receiving Off
Don’t connect to Wi-Fi networks automatically
Most devices have automatic connectivity settings that allow you to connect to open Wi-Fi networks or Wi-Fi networks you have previously connected to. Although this seems handy, you may end up connecting to bogus networks unknowingly.
To limit your exposure to security risks, disable automatic connectivity on your devices. For individual networks, especially Wi-Fi networks you don’t use daily, turn off auto-reconnect or auto-join for the network so that your device won’t connect to it automatically when you are in range, or you can forget the Wi-Fi network altogether. When you’re no longer actively using the Internet, turn off Wi-Fi.
Here's how you can disable auto-reconnect for Wi-Fi networks on your mobile devices:
Android: Go to Settings > Tap Connections > Tap and hold the network name > Select Manage Network Settings > Deselect auto-reconnect
iOS: Go to Settings > Tap Wi-Fi > Tap the Info icon next to the network name > Turn off Auto-Join
Use a VPN
Using a Virtual Private Network, also known as VPN, is one of the best methods to keep your browsing sessions private. With VPN, data travelling to and from your devices is encrypted, making it harder for cyber criminals to eavesdrop on your online activities.
As there are many VPN services (both free and paid) available on the market, take some time to choose the right VPN for your needs. Read independent product reviews from reputable websites and cross-check with several sources before deciding on a VPN. Depending on your needs, it may be worthwhile to invest in a paid service with better security features. Many paid VPN services offer free trials so you can try them out before you make your decision.
At the end of the day, the best way to avoid the security risks of public Wi-Fi is by using your mobile data or a private Wi-Fi network (i.e. one where you know exactly who is connected to the network) instead. Nevertheless, if you are going to connect to public Wi-Fi, be sure to lower those risks and stay safe by following the tips above.