Usually we don’t even think about. We see the free wifi network and jump right on.
But those free wifi networks can often be bad news. Especially the ones with hundreds of people on them, like hotels and shopping malls. If people are snooping on those networks, and they usually are, your connection instantly makes you a possible target.
What many of us don’t realise is, our phones and laptops are almost digital copies of ourselves. The angry email you sent your ex boyfriend ten years ago, all the flirty text messages from Jessica at reception, all your artistic naked selfies, the dirty jokes you send to your work colleagues, photos of your grandparents, probably even your credit card and passport and tax information, it’s all just a swipe or two away. If you gave your phone to a stranger for an hour, imagine how much they would know about you. They would know more about you than your mother and your best friend combined.
When you connect to an open network, there’s a chance you’re leaving all that information on display. Do you really want to do that?
For most people, the risk is not constant. 90% of the time you’re using your own private sim card or your own wifi at home. However for travellers, things are different. 90% of the time we’re using the free wifi at a cafe, a hostel, an airport, sometimes, we don’t even know who the wifi belongs to. If it’s free and has no password, we’re on it like rats. I mean, we gotta post those hilarious snaps from the beach yesterday, right?
The truth is, you can only do so much to protect yourself online. There is always going to be a chance of you getting targeted, but there are still many things you can do to minimise the risk. Follow the tips below, and hopefully the only person browsing your naked selfies on your next trip will be you.
1. Stick to secure websites
It’s always important to check that the website you’re using is secure. You can do this simply by checking the security information in a trusted browser like Chrome of Firefox. If a website’s connection is safe, it will be indicated by a green lock to the left of the URL, like so:
If you’re on a public network (or any network!) try to avoid entering any sensitive information on a non-secured website. This includes things like passwords, credit card numbers, and other personal details.
2. Avoid using apps
App security is less stringent than browser security. If you are using apps from well known brands, such as Paypal, you’ll probably be okay. But try to avoid entering any sensitive information into apps from lesser known companies. This is particularly important if you use the same password for various websites – even if you’re willing to risk a casual forum or game account, hackers can start trying those login details for every other website, including emails and social media. Stick to using your browser rather than apps, and only on secure websites.
3. Turn off file sharing
Make sure your files are secure. Often when using our laptops on a home network we share folders with our friends and sisters and parents. This is fine, as long as you remember to turn it off when you connect to public wifi. If you forget to turn off file sharing, that means every other person connected to the same wifi network (yes, everyone) has an open pass to see what’s on your computer.
Some newer computers are smart and will automatically turn this off for you when you connect to a public wifi, but you should double check anyway. To turn off file sharing, simply search for “Advanced Sharing Settings” in the Windows search bar, and you’ll come to a window like this:
Simply turn off discovery and file sharing and you’re good. For you Mac users, you can find the same options under “Sharing” in your System Preferences.
4. Choose your wifi wisely
Let’s say you’re in a shopping mall. The shopping mall advertises free wifi throughout the mall, just connect and accept the terms and conditions. Sounds great, right? And it might be great for your social media addiction, but not so good for security. The easier it is to connect to a wifi network, the easier it is for bad stuff to be happening on it.
A better option is to look for a coffee shop or restaurant inside the mall, and use their private wifi network instead. If the network is hidden and/or you need to ask the staff for the password – even better.
5. Update your antivirus
Never connect your devices to any free wifi network without an up to date antivirus. Most laptops these days come with a built in software, like Windows Defender, which should be sufficient for most people. Of course, you can step up and download a software like Avast, which is free and gives you an extra layer of protection.
6. Use a VPN
If you’re like me and just want a set-and-forget option, I’d recommend using a VPN. A VPN is a “Virtual Private Network”, which acts as your own private internet bodyguard.
The way a VPN works is it hides your IP address and encrypts your connection, so that everything you send over the internet is hidden. Think of it like a ninja connection – whenever you send information, nobody knows what it was or where it came from. You may be familiar with using a VPN for work; often a requirement if you work for government or handle sensitive information. However, your personal details are just as, if not more, important than your work stuff, so you should be using a VPN on your personal devices too.
Luckily VPNs are cheap and accessible these days, so there really is no excuse to not be using one. The VPN I use is called Private Internet Access and I have been using them for many years. They’re affordable, allow multiple devices, and are super fast and user friendly. You can click here to look at their plans.
If you’d like to learn more about VPNs, why they’re important and how to use them, you can check out my beginner’s guide here.
7. Don’t use it at all
While I generally don’t have a problem using wifi in restaurants and cafes with secure passwords, I try to avoid connecting to large open wifi networks in airports and malls. Instead, I purchase a local sim card with data, and will use that on my phone and/or tether to my laptop any time I need to get connected. Even with a VPN, I tend to take the ‘better safe than sorry’ route, especially as I’m constantly checking bank accounts and other important information. Data is usually cheap these days, and for around $20 a month you can get more gigabytes than a normal human being should need. Alternatively, you can invest in a pocket wifi to keep you connected 24/7. The best way to stay safe on public wifi is to not use it at all.
Like I said these steps will not make you bulletproof, but will definitely reduce your chance of being a target.