Is public Wi-Fi safe? The short answer: Hell, no. But if you must use the free wireless at your hotel or the satellite office (i.e., Starbucks), here are some precautions you should take.
Keep it impersonal. Never online-bank via public wi-fi. Obvious, right? But you shouldn’t even check email — that can give hackers access to a trove of personal info. This applies even to secure websites, those with https (hypertext transfer protocol secure) in the URL. “Public hotspots are susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks” — where the hacker intercepts communications — “which will strip out the ‘secure’ part of https,” warns David Lee, a product manager for mobile at security software company Norton.
Beware fake networks. Check the network name with the staff of wherever you’re working. “You might see ‘Free-Starbucks-wifi,’ but this could easily be a fake,” says Jérôme Segura, a lead malware intelligence analyst at internet security software maker Malwarebytes. You’d be able to get online like everything was normal, except all your traffic would be visible to prying eyes.
Turn off sharing. Your device’s sharing function is designed to be used in a collaborative work environment, making it easy to let other computers on the same network access your files — something you definitely do not want on public wi-fi. When you disable sharing, it makes your phone or laptop invisible to others, and thus a less likely target.
Get your own network. Install virtual personal network (VPN) software, which establishes an encrypted tunnel for your internet traffic. But VPNs aren’t invulnerable, so you should stick to using https websites (which, sigh, still won’t guarantee safety). Also, look for a VPN that offers an anti-malware scanner and a mobile app.
Use your phone. You can use your smartphone as a hotspot for your laptop (it’s called tethering), which offers a secure connection. It does have a couple of downsides, though: First, you’re at the mercy of your carrier’s performance and data rates. Second, the websites you’re looking at know who you are and what device you’re using, whereas a VPN will make you completely anonymous.