Ken's Korner Newsletter Logo
June 2016
Are Public Wi-Fi Networks Safe?

Do you really need to worry about security?

Cybercrime is a serious problem that cost us billions of dollars a year. Identity theft can ruin your credit, your reputation and your life. It can take years to rebuild your good standing and cost thousands of dollars.

Treat all Wi-Fi links with suspicion.
Are those public Wi-Fi networks, like the ones at your favorite coffee shops or fast food restaurants, safe? The short answer is NO! They pose many risks to users but fortunately there are a number of things you can do to stay safe and secure while in public places.

Treat all Wi-Fi links with suspicion. Cybercriminals set up fake Wi-Fi links with names that are similar to the legitimate site you should be using. It is a war zone out there and traditional law enforcement is ill equipped to protect you.

Unlike your home network where all the machines on the network are yours, or at least other family member whom you can trust and manage the machines they use, public systems are wide open. You have no idea who else is on the same network that you are using.

What can you do to protect yourself in public?

Get a Hotspot!
If you do a lot of mobile computing get yourself a hotspot and use it. Verizon, Century Link and AT&T all offer their customers hotspots. Hotspots are available either on your cell phone or as a separate device. This way you have your own private link to the Internet and you can control who is using it, (usually it’s just you). Of course that does add an additional expense on your part.

Short of that there are other things you can do:

Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
A VPN is secure link to a secure server and you are actually browsing from that secure server. The process is sometimes referred to as “tunneling” it provides an encrypted link to the secure server. If some malicious user manages to intercept your connection all they see is gibberish not your user name, passwords or other sensitive data. Some VPN services even block ads! While some services do offer a free version the paid version is still cheaper than a hotspot. But it does add another expense to your already burgeoning list of expenses.

Some examples of VPN services are:

A quick Google search will provide you with a much more extensive list of VPN service providers.

Is there anything you can do that doesn’t cost a bunch of money? Yes!

You can tell if you are on a SSL connection because the address will be HTTPS:// and its that little “S” that is important. Regular web connections use the HTTP:// and exchange a lot of data in plain text format including passwords and other sensitive information. With SSL that data is encrypted so the hackers just get more gibberish not data. Many sites like Google and Facebook do this automatically but keep an eye on that address bar.

Turn Off Sharing
When you're at home, you may share files, printers, or even allow remote login from other computers on your network. When you're on a public network, you should turn these things off, as anyone can access them. They don't even need to be a hacker. Depending on your setup, some of that stuff probably isn't even password protected.

To turn off sharing in Windows
Open your Control Panel, then browse to Network and Internet, Network and Sharing Center, and then click Choose Change Advanced Sharing Settings. Once here, you should definitely turn off file and printer sharing, and you may as well turn off network discovery and Public folder sharing. Some of this is done automatically by Windows if you specify the network as public when you first connect to the network.

To turn off sharing in OS X
Go to System Preferences > Sharing and make sure all the boxes are unchecked. You'll also want to turn off network discovery. This will prevent others from even seeing your machine on the network, meaning you're less likely to be targeted. On Windows it's just another check box under advanced sharing settings. On OS X, it will be called "stealth mode" and be under your firewall's advanced settings

Enable Your Firewall
Most Operating Systems come with at least a basic firewall nowadays, and it's a simple step to keeping unwanted local users from poking at your computer. You may already be using a firewall, but just in case, go into your security settings;

  • On a Windows machine under Control Panel, System and Security, Windows Firewall.
  • On a Mac under System Preferences, Security & Privacy, Firewall.

Make sure your firewall is turned on. You can also edit which applications are allowed access. For more information on firewall settings refer to the manufactures instructions for your OS. Your firewall is not an end-all, be-all protector, but it's always a good idea to make sure it's turned on.

Turn Wi-Fi Off When You Aren't Using It
When you're not actively using the internet, simply turn off your Wi-Fi. This is easy in both Windows and OS X.
  • In Windows, you can just right-click on the wireless icon in the taskbar to turn it off.
  • On a Mac, just click the Wi-Fi icon in the menu bar and select the turn off AirPort option

This isn't all that useful if you need the internet, but when you're not actively using it, it's not a bad idea to just turn it off for the time being. The longer you stay connected, the longer people have to notice you're there and start snooping around.

Keep Your System Updated
New security fixes are coming out all the time. Data security is an arms race and you need to keep your defenses up. Make sure that you are running the latest updates for your OS and browser.

And remember – Always Back It Up!

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