It is one of the quandaries of modern life; a 21st century problem that even as recently as 20 years ago would have meant nothing to anyone. How to travel and stay online at the same time.
It might be travelling for work, on holiday, or just heading into town shopping for the day, but the fact remains that in this day and age it is vital for us to remain connected. Sure, we can rely on our 3G or 4G connections, but how reliable are they when you actually need them (Vodafone, I’m looking at you!). And never mind how much your bill might be if you go over your limits.
This is why public Wi-Fi is a godsend for almost everyone these days. It is often free, but even if there is a charge it won’t be much more than £1; it is easy to use, with little more than a brief registration required to access the service; and crucially it is getting better and better. Ok, some connections might not be up to streaming video and other such intense uses, but some are, and that is pretty remarkable for a free connection.
Security: The ominous cloud
Of course, every silver lining has a cloud, and unfortunately in the case of public Wi-Fi networks, that cloud is a pretty dark and ominous one: Security.
A surprisingly small number of people seem to be aware of this but public WiFi networks are astonishingly insecure. And the reason for this is much the same as the reasons why they are so convenient for us to use when we are on the go.
There is no authentication needed when connecting to a public WiFi network, beyond perhaps a simple registration process. This means that anyone can connect to them, including hackers.
The most common technique hackers use with public Wi-Fi is hotspotting. This basically works by the hacker positioning themselves between you and the connection. This means he can see and access everything you are doing on your screen, and steal all of the data you are sending through the connection: including emails, credit card details, and bank details to name but three.
Hacking these days is incredibly complex, but hotspotting is like Hacking 101 – anyone with a computer and a very cheap bit of software can do it, (even a 7 year old) and lots of people do.
Public Wi-Fi is also a great tool for distributing malware. If you allow file-sharing across a network, it is easy for a hacker to plant a file on your device which then installs malware. Some hackers even attach malware to the connection itself, so they can plant it on all users, but this is a more technical.
Essentially, using public Wi-Fi is the computing equivalent of leaving all your personal information and private data on the table in the coffee shop while you go for a pee. You wouldn’t do that without taking precautions like asking someone to watch it or covering it up with a coat. And you shouldn’t use Public Wi-Fi without taking the proper precautions either.
But what are the best precautions to take?
Precautions: A VPN
Actually, there is only really one precaution you really need to take to be able to use a public WiFi network with confidence no matter where you are; and that is using a VPN.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network is a secure connection to the internet which diverts your data down an encrypted pathway and via an external server.
The valuable bit for public Wi-Fi users is the encrypted pathway bit. If you are connected to the internet via a VPN all of your data is encrypted. This means it is encoded before transfer and means even if your data is intercepted it is unintelligible to pretty much any hacker.
Most hackers at this level are looking for easy targets, so encrypted data will be mostly ignored. With a good VPN, cracking it will be all but impossible in any case. This means that no matter what you want to use a public Wi-Fi connection for; online shopping; online banking; sensitive business communications; your data will be secure and you can log on with confidence.
And of course a VPN comes with plenty of other perks too. Connecting via an external server allows you to surf the net anonymously, while connecting to different countries servers lets you access geo-restricted content no matter where in the world you are.
To use Public Wi-Fi with confidence, a VPN is a must, but there are a few other precautions worth taking too.
Try to ensure your Wi-Fi connection is switched off when you aren’t using it. This isn’t so important if you are using a VPN, but is still a worthwhile ‘risk-minimiser’.
It is also always good practice to use the secure HTTPS connections to sites rather than the insecure HTTP ones. Most sites will offer these options these days.
And lastly, turn off sharing. This can be done via the control panel and helps to mitigate the risk of a malware attack.
With a VPN, none of these are strictly necessary, but all are good practice nonetheless.
And with these few simple steps, you can use public Wi-Fi with confidence, no matter where you are.