By Terry Koehl
Public wireless Internet access is everywhere today. Many businesses, hotels, and even some government agencies offer free Internet access to their clientele. These access points (known as WiFi hotspots) allow you to connect to the Internet while away from home or the office.
However, just because it’s free to use doesn’t mean it’s the safest option. When you join a public WiFi hotspot, you are becoming part of a network of other users connected to the same hotspot. This can leave you vulnerable to an attack by a hacker who is also connected to the WiFi hotspot. Following some simple steps will lower your profile and help minimize your risk of attack.
1) If you don’t need it, don’t connect. Consider your current activity and, if it doesn’t require being connected to the Internet, disconnect from the WiFi hotspot until you do need it.
Many devices can also be set to automatically connect to an open public WiFi hotspot when detected. This feature should be turned off to give you control of what hotspots you connect to and when.
2) Turn off file sharing. With Windows Vista and later, this can easily be done when you connect to the hotspot for the first time.
Windows will ask for the network type and you should select “Public.” Windows will then automatically configure itself to prevent files from being shared.
3) Leave the banking and financial transactions for the home or office. The less sensitive information you enter into your device while connected to a public network, the less the hackers can gain from you. If you must make an emergency banking transaction, use your smartphone’s data connection rather than the public WiFi, and ensure you use the institution's app to complete your transactions.
4) Watch out for the Peeping Tom. Gathering information doesn’t require a high tech approach. Be aware of your surroundings.
Can that person behind you look over your shoulder and watch as you type your user name and password into your Facebook account?
5) Use the power of HTTPS: When entering login information, make sure that the website is secure. You can make a simple check by looking at the site’s address in the address bar. An un-secure website will look like http://www.example.com. A secure website will have the letter s appended to the http section such as https://www.example.com This https indicates that the website is using encryption to code the communications between yourself and the website. You should, however, watch that the website remains in a secure connection after you login. If it does not, then log out and wait until you are on a secure network to complete your transaction.
While the previous tips will help minimize your risk, the best defense is your own education, knowledge, and judgment. Ask yourself what would happen if someone saw the information you were entering on your device while connected to a public hotspot, and act accordingly. Ultimately we are all responsible for protecting ourselves.
Terry Koehl, a Ramona resident, owns AccuTech Support, a computer and repair business. Have a question you’d like answered in TechPoint? Contact him at 760-239-9001 or firstname.lastname@example.org.