Using Public Wi-Fi? Keep Your Information Protected

Published on June 24, 2015

"On-the-go" is a normal state of life for most of us. I know that I personally find myself darting into a Starbucks more often than not, hunting for a wi-fi connection to get a little work done or send off an email or two.

It's easy to grab that wi-fi connection and go about our online activities without much further thought, but these public wi-fi connections are often a little more sketchy than meets the eye.

Tapping into your personal information (read: credit card numbers, passwords, bank login information) is made even easier for hackers on public wi-fi servers. Make sure you're taking the appropriate protective measures when you're using wi-fi to ensure your private information stays private. Here's what the experts recommend.

1. Invest in a Virtual Private Network.

If you find yourself routinely needing to access private information in a public wi-fi environment, your best form of defense is a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

A VPN effectively creates a private channel to send and receive data while using a public wi-fi server. Your information uses a private and specific "point-to-point" connection - that is, sending information from one specific place (like your laptop) to another (like your office computer, or a secure remote server) - without any other outside interferences.

There are a number of ways VPNs secure your information, including traffic encryption, dedicated connections, and tunneling protocols (among other tech jargon). VPN providers each offer varying levels of security, usually coming in to the tune of a $4-$7/month subscription.

Unsure where to begin? Check out this list of the best VPN providers of 2015, recently detailed by Secure Thoughts.

2. Automate your public wi-fi settings.

Your computer is smart enough to know whether or not you're using a public wi-fi connection, so why not tell your computer what privacy setting you want there? Optimize your privacy settings for public wi-fi by taking advantage of the privacy automation your operating system has to offer. Here's what to do.

Windows users:

Customize your network presets by opening Control Panel, navigating to Network and Sharing Center, and then clicking on Advanced Sharing Settings. Here you can lock down network discovery, file sharing, public folder sharing, media streaming, and other options on and off based on the different profiles.

For further automation, check out a program called NetSetMan to customize your network profile for different networks. This offers more detailed options, such as choosing an IP address, DNS server, or create customized scripts that will pop up every time you connect to a preset network.

OS X users:

OS X doesn't have the same built-in options that Windows does on this front, but you can use an app like ControlPlane to customize your options. With this app you can customize when to turn on firewall, turn off sharing, connect to a VPN, and more.

3. Turn off sharing manually.

Sharing is a useful way to connect with devices, file folders, and other users. However, this is best saved for home usage, as you definitely don't want to share your personal data with complete strangers over a public wi-fi connection. If you haven't automated this in the prior step, make sure to do so manually.

To ensure your sharing is turned off, here's what to do:

Windows users:

  • Open Control Panel
  • Click Network and Internet
  • Click Network and Sharing Center
  • Click Advanced Sharing Settings
  • Turn off file sharing, printer sharing, network discovery, and Public folder sharing

OS X users:

  • Open System Preferences
  • Click Sharing
  • Make sure all boxes are unchecked

4. Use HTTPS (or SSL) instead of HTTP.

It's easy to forget about the HTTP:// prefix to our URLs, as web browsers fill it in automatically for you. When you're surfing the web on public wi-fi, keep this nifty trick in your back pocket for more secure browsing.

Instead of using HTTP before your URL, replace it with HTTPS - they encrypt the data passed back and forth between your computer and your web server, masking your internet activity on a digital level. Not all websites will support this approach (and may not load when you try), as they have to have a certificate to encrypt your traffic. That said, most of the big ecommerce and social media sites will have an SSL certificate

Note: While some websites automatically use the HTTPS prefix (like Google and Facebook, for example), it is far from universal. Remember to check your prefix on every new website, and reload the website with an HTTPS or SSL prefix if you need to.

5. Are you accessing sensitive information? Wait.

While these tips do help with public wi-fi security, nothing is really foolproof. If you can, save any internet activity pertaining to bank accounts, credit card transactions, client forms, and other sensitive information until you're safely at home on a private internet connection. Personally, we'd never do online banking at Starbucks!

Questions? Suggestions? Don't hesitate to send us an email or drop a comment below!