Free Wi-Fi is a windfall, especially if you’re working from the library or airport, or if you just want to save data on your phone or laptop. Still, you do have to care about security when you’re out and about. Here’s how to surf safely, on any device.
1. Practice Good Internet Hygiene
Perhaps the first and biggest piece of advice we can give you, beyond software, and beyond tools that promise to protect your privacy, is to practice good internet hygiene. Avoid working with at least online sensitive data when you’re using unsecured, public Wi-Fi. It may be a good time to check the news or read your favorite blogs, but it’s probably not the best time to do your online banking.
2. Use the Right Networks
Not every public Wi-Fi network is created equally. For example, that “Free Airport Wi-Fi” network lurking in the background is undoubtedly worse than any Wi-Fi network provided by one of the coffee shops, stores, or retailers in the airport. Opt for those instead. You’ll appreciate the added security (albeit really only security through obscurity, which is flimsy) as well as the likely improved performance. If you’re curious, you can use tools like WiFox and its mobile apps to map out networks at your airport and choose which ones to use and when. Oh, and in case it needs to be said, if there are questionable networks like “Free Wi-Fi Here!” or “Absolutely Free Internet!” you should probably avoid them
3. Use Semi-Open Wi-Fi Networks Instead
You may not always have a choice when it comes to what network you use, but if you do have a choice, consider “semi-open” Wi-Fi instead of completely open networks, consider ones that serve airport lounges, nearby coffee shops that have hidden SSIDs or put their passwords on receipts instead of giving them out freely, and so on.
4. Turn Off File Sharing and AirDrop Options
You may not be able to control who’s on what network you’re using, but you can control your computer. Regardless of if you’re using a Windows PC or a Mac, your computer probably has some file sharing options that assume you’re on a trusted network, with other trusted computers. Turn off file sharing in Windows and macOS, enable your system’s built-in firewalls, and keep internet-connected apps and services to a minimum. Mac users, take the extra step and set AirDrop to contacts-only. You should do this anyway, but now’s a good time.
5. Turn Wi-Fi Off When Not In Use
One of the basic rules of security is that if you don’t need something connected to a network, don’t connect it. When you’re finished working online, turn Wi-Fi off on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It’s a nice security habit to get used to when you’re using untrusted networks (if you have to use them at all), and it’ll also save your battery. It’s easy to do in macOS, and in Windows you can even set your laptop to automatically turn Wi-Fi back on after a short time
6. Keep Your Antivirus and Antimalware Up to Date
This list is in no particular order, but we’re willing to bet some of you may have expected to see this tip sooner. If you ever use public, untrusted networks, make sure your computer is running some kind of antimalware utility and complementary antivirus utility as well.
7. Install Privacy-Protecting Browser Extensions
Antimalware is great, but it only really protects you from things you download and execute, barring malvertising or malware winding up on your system through no fault of your own. The next step is to fortify your browser with tools designed to protect your privacy.
You probably already use an ad blocker, but a good, customizable one like uBlock Origin gives you control over what’s blocked and what isn’t when you want it, and can lock out just about anything when you need it to. Disconnect is another great option, and protects you from same-network attacks like session hijacking and clickjacking—both of which are still real threats, and can give people access to things like your Amazon account or Facebook account, even if you’re browsing securely
8. Use HTTPS Everywhere You Can
Anywhere HTTPS works, use it . Of course, not every site supports it, but if it’s available, the add-on will try to bump you over to the secure version of the site, and if it’s not there, you’ll roll back to the plain HTTP version.
9. Use a VPN
The best protection from an untrusted network when you have to use one, I think, is direct, encrypted access to a trusted one. That means using a VPN when you’re out and about. Whether you use a third-party VPN service provider or you roll your own VPN at home and connect to it when you’re out and about, using one makes sure that all of your data is encrypted between you and the service provider, locking out anyone on the same network as you who might be snooping around.
10. Bring Your Own Wi-Fi Instead
The real best protection from an untrusted network is not using it at all. Of course, this isn’t a real way to make public Wi-Fi any safer, but if you can, consider ditching the public Wi-Fi entirely and bringing your own. You can use your own wireless carrier’s data by using your mobile hot spot from your phone. This will allow you to create your own Wi-Fi network. No longer will you need to be on the sketchy public Wi-Fi at the airport while you’re waiting for your layover and onto cellular data instead.
Stay safe out there.