Free, public Wi-Fi can be a great help, especially if you’re running low on mobile data or outside your network’s coverage. It’s not quite the same as using Wi-Fi at home, and there are a few things to think about before you jump in.
The safest thing to do would be to avoid public Wi-Fi completely. If your phone has a data plan, you can share its internet connection by creating a mobile ‘hotspot’ in the settings, sometimes called tethering. When it’s set up, connect your kit to it just like a router to use your own connection to browse the internet safely.
Tethering might not be included in your data plan though, so check with your mobile network provider about possible extra charges.
If Wi-Fi is your only option, here are a few tips to help you stay safe.
If you’re using a laptop, it can be convenient to have all your files available for sharing when you’re at home. But when you connect to a public network, that ease of sharing becomes a threat. Disabling it will help stop people getting to the files and folders on your laptop.
Most laptops, tablets and phones reconnect to wireless networks you’ve connected to in the past. It’s handy to not have to type the wireless password every time, but also means your kit might connect when you don’t want it to, putting your data at risk.
You can turn Wi-Fi off when you’re not using it, or remove each network’s saved settings from your kit. Every device is different, but you’ll usually find a list of known networks in the Wi-Fi settings. Remove all the networks you don’t plan on using in the near future.
The most obvious network name might not be the one you should use, even if it has the strongest signal. Connecting to fake networks can leave you (and your stuff) exposed. Just because you’re sitting in your favourite coffee shop, for example, doesn’t mean that the Wi-Fi with the cafe’s name is legitimate – it might be a fake. If you’re unsure, ask an employee to help you get connected securely.
To help stay safe try to use ‘semi-open’ networks instead of publicly broadcasted ones. They often won’t have signs up telling you what the network name and password are, but they’re usually available to customers if you ask for them.
Make sure any antivirus or antimalware products are installed, running and up-to-date before you connect your kit to a public network. They might not stop every attack, but warnings here are usually the first sign that something isn’t right.
Check that your computer’s firewall is working too. It’ll help it stay secure by keeping an eye on the network connections.
Windows 10 – Go to Start > Settings > Update & Security > Windows Security > Firewall & network protection. Make sure it’s turned on for each network type.
Passwords protect your computer, phone and all your accounts, but if you use the same password on every account it isn’t very secure. If anyone sees you type it in, they could get to all your stuff. To be safer, make unique passwords for each account, and make them as complex as you can.
It can be a challenge remembering lots of complex passwords, so it might be worth using a password manager like KeePass or LastPass. They’ll keep your passwords secure without you having to type them in each time.
If you can’t avoid using public Wi-Fi, be careful what you type when you’re browsing. Try to avoid entering any information that could identify you personally, like your phone number, home address or National Insurance number.
Regular websites use plain text to send information to and from your browser, which someone with the right skills could intercept. Secure websites encrypt the connection, keeping things like passwords and credit card details safe.
Look for the padlock in the address bar and ‘https://’ at the start of the address - they’re both signs that the connection’s secure. For better protection, Chrome, Firefox and Opera browser users can install the HTTPS Everywhere extension to force secure versions of pages to load - as long as they exist on the website.
HTTPS does a great job of keeping traffic to individual sites secure, but a VPN (virtual private network) can help keep all of your web traffic private, especially if you’re not sure about the wireless network you’re using.
If you think of the network connection as a pipe that data flows through, whoever controls the pipe can see the information going through it. Using a VPN is like putting your own liner inside the pipe that nobody can see through, keeping your session secure.
VPNs come in free and paid-for options. Free VPNs are fine for occasional use, but usually limit the connection speed or ‘bandwidth’ (the amount of data you can use). Premium services usually offer a combination of unthrottled connections (they won’t slow you down) and generous or uncapped data limits, and let you use your account on several pieces of kit.