Making Public Wi-Fi Safe

Sep 9, 2012 1:08pm

By Vernon Irvin, President/CEO
Virtual World Computing /

Airports, restaurants, coffee shops, businesses, dentists, libraries and even public parks offer public access to Wi-Fi for free. 

Surfing unsecured hotspots can open your data pipeline to some very unsavory characters.  

Whether you use it for convenience or because there is no other Internet connection available — the bad guys still have all kinds of tools to gather and steal information from you.

Let’s say you find yourself sitting at a local coffee shop taking advantage of the available Wi-Fi. You’re searching the web for an affordable gift to give your loved one for their birthday next week. Credit cards in hand, you chat with friends on Facebook pleading for any last-minute ideas before making a purchase. 

Not only are there many things that could go wrong with your unsecured shopping experience, but anything else requiring your login info while you’re on that free Wi-Fi connection (i.e. social networking sites). 

This is precisely the type of situation that could lead to identity theft, access to files on your computer’s hard drive, or full disclosure of any private information you send or receive over that network.

A common approach to intercepting private data and opening the door to identity theft is the “Man In The Middle Attack.” In the past, free programs like Firesheep have made it possible for even less tech savvy people to perform such an attack. The program could, for instance, hijack an active Facebook, Twitter, or even bank account session if the victim is using an unencrypted network. This applies to many of your online accounts, so think about it before logging on Facebook, accessing your bank portal, or making a purchase via public Wi-Fi.

Here are a few of the ways you can reduce the risks of using public Wi-Fi:

•   Encrypted Wi-Fi - Wherever possible, choose a password-encrypted network to help you increase your protection. Always make sure to set a password for your home network to keep undesirables out.

•   HTTPS - Using websites that utilize HTTPS (rather than standard HTTP) may help you in some scenarios, but this remains limited. While on Facebook, check the address bar to make sure you see “https” and not just “http”. If you are not in https mode, check your Facebook Preferences page and make the change.

•   Avoid Firefox password saving - If you’re using Firefox, it is recommended that you do not use the browser’s built-in password saving tool, because it is unencrypted to anyone who has access to your computer. To see any of the passwords that Firefox has saved for you, simply go to your Firefox Preferences in the Firefox menu; click on the Security tab; then go to ‘Saved Passwords in the bottom right corner. Once there, all that’s needed to show your full passwords is to highlight a website and click ‘Show Passwords’. If you have passwords saved, we recommend deleting them while in this menu.

•   Unknown public Wi-Fi networks - Avoid joining unfamiliar public networks, as they may be bait set up by hackers looking to steal your personal information. In airports, for instance, hackers have been known to create networks such as “Free Wi-Fi” designed to steal travelers’ passwords, bank account information, and any other data being accessed through the network.

•   File sharing - Disable file sharing while you travel to prevent hackers from stealing private data from your device.

•   Disable automatic Wi-Fi connecting - Ensure that your laptop, tablet or smartphone is not configured to automatically connect to open networks within its range.

•   Protect yourself - One of the best things you can do for yourself while browsing via public Wi-Fi is to do it through a proxy or VPN service. The added layer of protection establishes a private network overlaying the public network preventing a hacker from intercepting your data. Proxy services likeCocoon create a virtual firewall that keeps hackers from accessing your data and intercepting personal information while you browse a public network.

With the correct combination of knowledge and available online tools, far-reaching Internet access can be yours without all of the risks.