We’re all desperate for connectivity, and sometimes that addiction leads us to use public Wi-Fi Internet connections without really considering the source of the service. This could have some very serious repercussions. Whether you are using public Wi-Fi at a coffee shop, on public transportation, or at a restaurant or hotel, you are always vulnerable, but especially so when the pedigree of the Wi-Fi network is unclear.
Vulnerability takes many forms on public Wi-Fi. Most notably, wireless can be easily “sniffed” by anyone with the right software (free software) if they’re within a few hundred feet of you. So the combination of Wi-Fi and public means you need to take even greater precautions to ensure your security.
New technology that makes our lives more convenient can also create additional security threats, and Wi-Fi is a case in point. It is very easy for anyone to create a wireless hotspot (many smart phones have built-in hotspots), or to spoof an existing hotspot, so be very careful when accessing a public network, especially if the network requires financial or personal information to gain access.
Since we are usually the cause of our own demise, there are many easy ways for us to keep ourselves safe on public networks, and as network/IT admins it’s our responsibility to help our “users” as much as possible in accessing public Wi-Fi securely.
Five Steps to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi
Know the network you’re joining
In a rush to get things done, it’s easy to just hop on a public network, assuming that it’s been provided for your convenience by a reputable organization in a secure manner. But this isn’t always the case. Unscrupulous individuals can set up networks that aren’t secure, and worse yet, are designed to sniff for personal data. And with the hotspot capability on smart phones this is now even easier. You should never join anyone’s personal hotspot, period, unless you know the user and they have secured their network with a private key that they share with you. And if it’s a public network that you trust (like at Starbucks) but it doesn’t require any type of password to join, be very careful of the data you transmit over the network, it is NOT secure.
Keep your firewall and antivirus software up to date. Although this won’t protect you from every attack, it will help protect you from automated worms and viruses that use the intimate nature of public Wi-Fi to go from computer to computer.
Never turn your antivirus off. Occasionally people will turn off their antivirus software because they think it makes downloads and connections faster. This is a fallacy. Turning off your antivirus software will not speed up your download and leaves your computer extremely vulnerable.
Look for signs. If you see warnings about website certificates, log-in fields in unfamiliar locations, or requests for financial details, stop what you are doing and put your computer away. These small signs can be an indication that someone is trying to get information from you that you do not want to share.
Clean up your computer when you get home. If you want to be really diligent about ensuring you were not infected or harmed, run a malware scan, especially after being on a public Wi-Fi network that you feel may have been less than secure.
VPNs Keep Employees Safe When Using Public Wi-Fi
Set up a virtual private network for work and non-work activities. As a network engineer or IT admin, it is really easy and effective to set up a VPN, especially if you have mobile workers or provide devices to your workers. A VPN encrypts all traffic and keeps both your corporate data as well as employees’ personal data safe and secure. Require that the VPN be used for access to any corporate application, and encourage your users to take advantage of the VPN to protect their personal public Wi-Fi usage as well.
Remember: when using a hotspot you are in a public space and sharing material that you may not want to share with the public. Make sure you think wisely about what you are accessing and using. And, if unsure, wait until you get back to your secure home or work network before buying that pair of shoes you were eyeing on Zappos.