How to protect your privacy on public Wi-Fi networks

Public Wi-Fi networks at coffee shops, airports, libraries and various other locations can be incredibly useful. They’re great for reading news while you wait, checking email on the go, working remotely, and for many other purposes.

However, there is some risk with connecting to a public Wi-Fi network. You could open yourself up to viruses, malware, data breaches, and even identity theft if you are not careful. Here are some tips to protect your privacy and stay safe and secure when using a public network.

Avoid Using Sensitive Data

When you’re connected to a public Wi-Fi network, you’ll want to think twice about which sites you visit and which data you access. For example, while public Wi-Fi is great for checking blogs, reading the news, and general browsing, you might want to avoid using it to do your online banking.

It’s not likely that someone at the coffee shop, airport, or library is snooping on your internet activity, but it’s not impossible. If you’re connected to a public network, there is a possibility that someone nearby might be sneakily watching what you’re doing online, so use caution.

Make Sure You’re Using The Right Network

You arrive in a coffee shop, sit down and check for available Wi-Fi networks. Great, there are several! But which network should you connect to? Is the coffee shop’s network “CoffeeWiFi,” “Coffee-Shop-Internet,” or “Free WiFi Network?” Connecting to the wrong one could leave you vulnerable and potentially open you up to data theft and identity fraud.

Before you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, verify which one is the “official” network. When in doubt, ask. If you’re buying a drink, the person working at the coffee shop will have no problem helping you connect to the right network.

Turn Off AirDrop And File Sharing

You might not even realize it, but your laptop, tablet, or phone could be configured to allow file sharing when you’re connected to a trusted network. This can obviously be troublesome when you’re connected to a public network.

If you’re using most versions of Windows, go to the Control Panel, then to “Network and Internet,” and then “Network and Sharing Center.” You can also get here by searching for “Network and Sharing” using Cortana on Windows 10. Then click on “Change advanced sharing settings.” On this screen, turn off file and printer sharing and consider turning off network discovery as well. Some of this will be automatically turned off if your network is classified as guest or public.

On a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “Sharing.” Make sure all of the boxes there are unchecked.

Apple users can take an extra step to ensure security by setting AirDrop to contacts only. AirDrop enables the transfer of files between supported Mac computers and iOS devices. Leaving this feature open to anyone can get you in trouble, as anyone could potentially send you an unsolicited file. To protect yourself, set your AirDrop to “contacts only” or turn it off completely if you don’t need it.

Keep Your Anti-Virus & Anti-Malware Up To Date

This is an important step to take even if you’re not connecting to public networks, but it’s certainly one that you will want to double check before you connect to an open Wi-Fi network.

You need to ensure your computer has anti-virus and anti-malware programs installed. Make sure that they have been updated before you connect to a public network and pay attention to any alerts or warnings that pop up. Public Wi-Fi networks occasionally interject ads while you browse, so be careful. Clicking on an ad can lead to malware and viruses.

Browse with caution. These are good words to follow at all times, but they’re especially important to remember when you are using a public network. Don’t click on pop-ups or visit websites that you are unfamiliar with, and never open or run files that you receive unless you are 100 percent sure what they are and who sent them.

You will also want to enable your computer’s firewall. Most modern operating systems come with a firewall which is likely enabled by default. However, you should double check. The method of doing this will depend on your operating system and the type of firewall that is installed.

Consider Bringing Your Own Wi-Fi Instead

This isn’t so much a way to protect yourself on a public Wi-Fi network as it is an alternative. If you want to access the internet when you’re out and about, one of the most secure ways to do this is by bringing your own Wi-Fi network.

This can be accomplished in a number of ways. One is by using a mobile hotspot. These can be purchased from many different electronics retailers and your mobile phone provider likely offers one for sale as well. Read reviews online and ask retailers for assistance to find the hotspot that is best for you.

The second way to create your own mobile Wi-Fi network is by tethering to your phone. Both iPhone and Android users should be able to do this, although some wireless providers may block or restrict this service. When you’re tethered to your phone, keep in mind that you’ll be using your wireless plan’s mobile data, so you might want to be careful if you have a limited plan. Going over your monthly allotment of data can get quite expensive pretty quickly.

By using some common sense, tweaking your computer’s settings to improve security, and making sure your system is up to date, you’ll be much safer when using public Wi-Fi. While these networks can certainly come in handy — and they are quite convenient — always remember that they’re public; they are not the network you’re used to using at home. Your browsing habits on a public network should be different, and you should take some extra steps to protect yourself.

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