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public wifi security: black woman at a coffee shop

People may find public Wi-Fi’s like those used in the malls and restaurants safe; however the dire truth is that they are not. Even if the public place has a password, the same network is being shared by many other people putting your data at risk.

However, there are ways you can stay safe on public networks and we will teach you how. Wireless routers have firewalls, but that does not in any way protect you from those who are connected to you via the same network. Hackers and even normal tech-savvy people can easily steal your username and password and see what you are up to using the same network. However, do not be afraid, there are some settings you can make that will automatically adjust your level of security when you are connected to a home Wi-Fi and when you are connected to a public one.

There are settings and apps which you can use to stay safe. However, ensure that they are turned on when on a public Wi-Fi as you need to protect yourself from the others on the same network.

1. Turn sharing off

At home, sharing files, printers, and other documents is fine. You can even allow a remote login on your network through other computers. However, the rules change when you are on a public network. You have to turn sharing off so that outsiders cannot access your files. To access your files, sometimes even a hacker is not needed. Your files may be open as per your settings and not even protected by a password. Follow these simple steps to switch off sharing:

If you have Windows:

Windows 8 Advanced Sharing Options

  • Go to Control Panel
  • Click on Network and Internet
  • Then go to Network and Sharing Center
  • Finally, click on Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings.
  • On this page, you can easily turn off file and printer sharing. You can also switch off network discovery and public folder sharing on this page.

If you have OS X:

OS X Sharing Preferencies

  • Open System Preferences
  • Then select Sharing
  • Uncheck all boxes

2. Allow Firewall

A majority of operating systems today come with a built-in basic firewall. Hence, it is not very difficult to keep the unwanted local users from hacking into your computer. Your firewall may already be active, but to be sure:

If you have Windows:

Windows 8 Firewall

  • Go to Control Panel
  • Select System and Security
  • Choose Windows Firewall
  • Go to System Preferences
  • Pick Security and Privacy
  • Finally, select Firewall
  • See that Firewall is switched on

There is also an option to select exactly which applications can be allowed access. Just click on Allow a Program or Feature.

If you have OS X:

OS X firewall options

  • Open System Preferences
  • Select Security & Privacy
  • Click on the Firewall tab
  • Click on Firewall Options

You can add to or remove applications from the list and allow or block incoming connections for a particular application.

Also, turn on “stealth mode” which averts other users on the network seeing you connected through the same Wi-Fi. Hence, you will not be the target of data theft and hacking.

Remember that Firewall does not safeguard your system 100% but it does provide a significant amount of protection and to keep it on would be a good idea.

3. Use HTTPS and SSL whenever you can

http secured connection

The usual website connections over HTTP exchange a lot of plain text when you are connected to a wireless network. Someone who knows his way around a computer and the network and has wrong intentions can get into your computer easily. They can even get into your passwords! You can use HTTPS (when visiting websites) or enable SSL (when using applications that use the internet such as your email). This will enable your data to be encrypted between the web server and your computer and keep your data safe.

A lot of sites like Facebook and Gmail enable HTTPS automatically. However, always ensure the web address has the “S” in HTTPS. If the “S” disappears suddenly, log out instantly. The other sites do default to HTTP but you have to type HTTPS manually if you want to be completely secured.

One more thing, if you are doing sensitive browsing like checking your bank information, try to hold it until you reach in the safety connection of your home.

Airmail desktop email client account settings

When accessing email from a desktop client like Outlook, Apple Mail or Airmail, ensure your email addresses are SSL encrypted in the settings. If they are not, people can not only read your emails, they can also get your username, password, etc. However, ensure that your domain supports the SSL. This setup may at times require different settings so check your email account page for further details. If your email account does not support SSL, quit the application as soon as you are on a public network.

4. Use a Virtual Private Network

For the sites that do not offer SSL encryption, they may be vulnerable to data theft and people seeing their activity. For these sites, VPN is a good idea, which will allow you to route your entire internet activity through a separate, safe, and private network. Hence, you will have security of a private network albeit you are on a public one.

For more information on how VPN operates and what benefits has to offer you, read this article.

There are many VPN choices available but if you do not feel like doing the research, we have a great review of two simple, really efficient and affordable VPN services, IPvanish and HideMyAss. Check this review out to learn about each service and choose the best for yourself.

5. Turn Wi-Fi off when it is not in use

OS X wi-fi turning off

For guaranteed security, and when you are not using the internet, just switch off the Wi-Fi. This task is very simple to do. On a PC, just right click on the Wi-Fi icon in the toolbar and switch it off. On a Mac, select the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar then click on Turn Wi-Fi Off option.

The rule of the thumb is, the longer you stay connected to the internet, the higher the chances of people spying on you.

Automating your public Wi-Fi security settings

It is not a very practical move to manually change all your settings every time you log on from a public network and then switch back when you are at home. Thankfully, there are a few ways to automatically change the settings so that you are protected as soon as you are connected on a public network.

On Windows

Windows 8 Network and Sharing Center

As soon as you connect to any network on Windows, you will be asked instantly if this network is for home, office or public. Every option will open up more choices from a list of settings. The public setting will automatically give you more security.

You can also customize your options by going to Control Panel and then to Network and Sharing Center. Then click on Advanced Sharing Settings where you have the option to switch on network discovery or file sharing and even public folder sharing and media streaming. You also have other options of on and off for different profiles.

On OS X

OS X ControlPlane screenshot

The options are not so easy and built-in in OS X but you can use an app called ControlPlane, which will customize your choices for you. The app will allow you to turn on firewall, turn off sharing, connect to a VPN and a lot more.

In your browser

HTTPS Everywhere Firefox extension

HTTPS Everywhere is a Firefox, Chrome and Opera extension that can choose a secure HTTPS option automatically for many sites like the New York Times, Facebook, Google, etc. This will make sure that you have a secure HTTPS connection to web sites each time you visit them. Moreover, you can insert your own XML config file. The browser extension works on all popular platforms like Mac, Linux and Windows.

Better safe than sorry

Sometimes people add so many profiles that they have to automate the safe settings every time, which can be frustrating. Most Starbucks and McDonalds outlets would have the same names for all their Wi-Fi’s which will result in your profile being carried over. A safer approach will be to make your secure settings as default in your computer and create only one profile for your home network. Hence, file sharing will be turned off by default. Also, your firewall would be secure. As soon as you reach the safety of your home, you can have Airport Location turn on the less secure settings.

These points and tips will not protect you 100% but they should be helpful and you should opt for this checklist whenever connected to a public network. Many other things can be done, but they are more professional and technical.

Many of you may have safe public browsing routines. Feel free to share them with us in the comments below.

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