It seems that free public Wi-Fi networks are everywhere these days. In fact, you’ll probably need to look no further than the nearest fast food joint.
The widespread availability of public Wi-Fi networks is great for when we’re traveling or the rare times when the Internet is down at home for whatever reason, but they do have one serious downside: They are typically unsecured.
To keep things as simple and non-intrusive as possible, the owners of most public Wi-Fi networks make them available as open, non-encrypted networks that don’t require a password. Unfortunately, these networks can leave your sensitive data wide open to hackers.
Any data that you send to a website over a typical public network can be intercepted before it gets to it’s final destination. That means your usernames, passwords, credit card information or anything else could easily be stolen, and you wouldn’t find out about it until it’s too late to prevent the damage.
That being said, there are a couple of things you can do to ensure the safety of your sensitive information while you’re using an unencrypted public Wi-Fi network:
1 – Whenever possible, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). Using a VPN allows you to send and receive all of your data through an encrypted “tunnel”, even when the network you’re connected to isn’t protected by encryption.
There are many good VPN services available, and you can use some of them for free. A great example is the free version of Spotflux (which I use myself when I’m travelling).
2 – If you find yourself needing to use a public network when you don’t have access to a VPN, you can safely do so as long as the website(s) you need to use are fully encrypted.
If a website uses encryption, any data that ends up being intercepted by a hacker will be unreadable and useless to him/her even if the network itself is unsecured. Just make sure the entire website is encrypted, not just the login page.
If you’re using a web browser on a computer or mobile device, look for the letters https: at the start of the website’s URL. If all you see is http: that means the site (or at least the current page you’re visiting) isn’t encrypted. You can also look for the small “padlock” icon that indicates encryption as well.
Important: I strongly recommend that you avoid using a website’s mobile app to interact with the site over a public Wi-Fi network. Use your device’s web browser instead. I say this because most apps don’t indicate whether the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted, but a web browser will.
Bottom line: Public non-encrypted networks are wonderful things when you really need one, but it’s important that you always pay attention to what you’re doing in order to keep your private information private.
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