How to be safe on a public wifi connection

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After last week’s post and podcast about the dangers of sharing your wifi signal with your neighbor, I had several people contact me about how to keep a computer safe “the other way around”. Meaning, if you are using your neighbor’s wifi signal (with permission of course), what type of precautions should you be taking in order to protect and secure your own computer?

free wifi safety


In general, the best plan is to use your computer the same way you would if you were on a public wifi connection and wanted to stay safe and secure.

So that naturally brings up the next question – how do you keep your computer safe on a public wifi connection?

1. Don’t have your computer connect to a public wifi automatically
This is something I’ve been guilty of. I could be in a place that has a free wifi signal, which I have used at some point in the past. And when I look at my laptop, it has already “remembered” the network and connected to it. Not good! Your computer should only go online when you are aware of it and you intentionally want it to connect to the internet. Usually when you click to connect to a wifi signal, there’s an option to “Connect automatically” – just make sure that box is not checked when you sign on.

2. Use 2-factor authentication for sites that offer it
This is a security feature that is becoming more and more common. Slightly inconvenient, yes, but only slightly. 2-factor authentication means that someone would not only need your password to get into an account; they would also need access to your phone. For example, you can have this enabled for a Gmail email account. So if you have your laptop connected to a public wifi network, and you want to check your email, you would go to the Gmail website like you normally would. You enter your email address and your password. But you’re not immediately logged into your account. Instead, Google asks you for a confirmation code as the final step before accessing your account. And you get that code through a text message on your phone. When you enter the code, you get into your email. So even if some hacker somewhere in the world guesses your Gmail password, they can’t get into your email because they don’t have your phone.

3. Turn off sharing
When you’re connected to the wifi at Starbucks, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll be planning to share any files with the other people on that same network. So you shouldn’t have the various “Sharing” options enabled. Go to Control Panel and open the Network and Sharing Center, and click on “Advanced Sharing Settings”. Turn off Network discovery, File and printer sharing, and Public folder sharing:

wifi safety


4. Make sure you know the actual network name
If you’re in some public place like an airport or hotel lobby, and you check to see what wifi is available, you might see a network called “public wifi” or “free wifi” or “guest wifi”. It would be really easy to think, “Hey, that’s nice of them┬áto offer people a free wifi connection!”. But you should not connect to one of them without FIRST verifying where it came from. Yes, it might just be a local business offering it to the community. But it could also be that guy over in the corner with his own wifi hotspot, wanting people to log in to HIS network so he can snoop around on your computer.

5. Consider using a VPN
That’s a Virtual Private Network. I’m not going to get into all the technical details about what a VPN is or how it’s set up. The bottom line for you is that you can run software on your computer, log in with your user name and password, and once you’re signed in you’re safe. So whether you’re signing in to your Facebook account or your email account or your Paypal account, all of your communication is encrypted. So no one can intercept it and read it.

There are lots of VPNs available for you to use. Some are free, some you pay for, depending on the features. If you want, use the comments section below to let me know which one you like best and why.

And in addition to those 5 practices, you should also do the things that are considered common sense:

  • Have strong antivirus/antimalware on your computer
  • Use strong passwords, and a different one for every account. And don’t store them in your browser.
  • Don’t click on a link unless you know where it will take you

Do you use your neighbor’s wifi? Do you use public wifi? What precautions do you take?

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Jack Holland
January 13th, 2015

Scott, another great tip/information. thank you. Jack