The Dangers of Public Wifi (Or, What Your Inner Diva and Your Favorite Coffee Place Have in Common)

Remember that time that you, channeling your inner diva, began to belt it out on the very top of your lungs in the shower? Just singin’ like nobody’s business, because there was no one to hear you… Until you stepped out of the bathroom, robe-clad, wet-haired and got a standing round of applause from your mom’s co-workers who had been invited over for an impromptu meeting…Sound familiar?

Public Wifi = Exposed

Our apologies if the story above triggers searingly awkward memories. (And please don’t hit us with your therapy bills.) If you think you can’t relate though, you should probably think again – This “exposed-to-everyone-and-you-didn’t-know-it” phenomenon is what takes place virtually every time you log into a public WiFi hot spot (albeit, minus the water). See, you think you’re all alone and nobody can hear or see you. But logging in to public WiFi unprotected is like letting the world know whether you could be a contestant on The Voice… or not.

Public WiFi seems great because it’s free and plentiful. It’s much better than paying for expensive data plans and it’s everywhere you go. It means you can grab a coffee at your local Starbucks and have a meaningful few minutes with your significant other – you know, your smartphone or iPad. And you have lots of important things to do in your free moments, like check your bank account or log on to Amazon.com to buy that pair of Michael Kors spring lace-up sandals for you or your “other” significant other, or say hi to your mom on Skype. All the while, you’re exposing your login credentials, passwords and contacts to any person with malicious intent who happens to be around. And, be warned, they are around because they are counting on people like you to remain blissfully unaware of the dangers that exist on public WiFi.

Is public Wifi really so bad?

The problem with public WiFi is that the information you transfer while using the network is available and potentially visible to everyone else on the network – including the creep sitting five tables away. According to David Maimon, Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the U of Maryland, “What attackers do is try to intercept the communication between your computer and the computer you’re trying to get information from or send information to. They can get passwords, usernames, you name it.” Using the right “sniffing tools” or a packet analyzer, which is any hardware or software designed to intercept data, they can begin to collect all your sensitive data. And once they have your information, they can use it to steal your identity in a whole number of ways.

Password-protection doesn’t help

And don’t think that you’re in better shape if your local coffee place gives out passwords to access their network – because if they gave it to you, they’ll give it to the creepy guy too, which means that in the end you’re both on the same network.

Sounds crazy, right?

Well indeed, it’s not great but it’s just another one of those things you need to be aware of in a world where everyone (or a lot of people, anyway) want a piece of your money. But fret not, you can still have your deep meaningful moments with your device of choice, you just need to learn how to play it safe while on the go. Here are some tips to stay safe and enjoy your coffee date:

  • Only access websites that begin with HTTPS. As we have mentioned before, that little “S” at the end matters a whole lot. It means that the webpage you are accessing uses the protocol for secure communications over networks and your connection is safe. Nowadays, many but not all websites use HTTPS to maintain secure communication. While on public WiFi, keep away from the ones that don’t.
  • Even using HTTPS-protected sites can be tricky because some websites only use the standard when it comes to payment gateway pages or other critical pages but other pages within the site aren’t covered by the HTTPS – they employ the less secure HTTP standard. To correct this and extend the same heightened level of secure communication to the entire site, you can use the HTTPS Everywhere browser extension. HTTPS Everywhere can only be enabled on websites that already employ some level of HTTPS on at least some pages. This is important in general and it’s super important on Public WiFi.
  • Installing a solid Antimalware program like RCS is critical for using public WiFi safely. Once a hacker can see your logins, it’s easy for him or her to plant malware on your device. Your Antimalware software will block their malicious efforts.
  • Log out of all accounts on Public WiFi as soon as you are done using them.
  • Consider setting up your own VPN, or Virtual Private Network. Sounds complicated? It’s not really, it just requires some planning and legwork. It works like this – When you have a VPN, you are connecting to the VPN provider’s servers via an encrypted connection, creating a network within the existing network. This means you can use public WiFi and remain entirely invisible to that creepy guy over at table five. To set up a VPN of your own, check out this step-by-step tutorial.
  • Just like you don’t need to ditch being a diva, you also don’t need to quit using public Wifi – you just need to know how to do it right.

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