Stay safe on public Wi-Fi

Using a laptop, tablet or phone on a Wi-Fi network in a public place? Some dos and don'ts to keep your data safe

If you have access to free Wi-Fi at a coffee shop or an airport lounge, you may want to check mail, research for that presentation you have to make, catch up on some live football streaming, maybe even download a few songs. But free Wi-Fi does not always mean secure Wi-Fi. A hacker, or anyone with malicious intent, could be monitoring the data on that network. If they get hold of your credit card details or your email address and password, you could be in trouble.

So if you want to use Wi-Fi in a public place, keep a few things in mind.

Verify the network name

If you are logging on to a public network, double-check the name of the access point, be it with someone working at the establishment, or from the leaflet/advertisement. There is a chance that a similarly named network could be visible in the area, the second being operated by someone out to prey on unsuspecting people as they share their credit card details while making an online transaction, or their email account login details. For example, the authentic hot spot may be “XYZ Wi-Fi", but nothing stops someone from duplicating that with something like “XYZFree Wi-Fi". Look out for these subtle differences.

Applicable to laptops, tablets and phones

Limit browsing

While on public Wi-Fi networks, restrict your browsing. Avoid typing in your credit card or bank account details, or sharing any sensitive information. Hold that urge to buy something from an online store till you get home and start using the secured Wi-Fi. Also, if you think a website looks like the original one, but doesn’t feel quite like it usually does, do not enter your ID and password there. Web-page cloning is a very simple activity, and hackers tend to create rather good copies of the original.

Applicable to laptops, tablets and phones

Keep Windows and Mac OS X up to date

It is critical to keep your laptop’s operating system up to date, with the latest security patches. Microsoft rolls them out via the Microsoft Windows Update utility installed on your laptop, while Mac OS X updates can be downloaded from the App Store application. You will get regular notifications reminding you to download updates.

Applicable to laptops

Use HTTPS extension

Regular websites may transfer content over the network as plain text. A hacker can read it as easily as if it were text on a Notepad. Some websites use HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure) to encrypt data before transferring it over the network.

But it would be too much to ask you to monitor every website and check if it is using HTTPS or not. We would recommend downloading the HTTPS Everywhere extension, available for popular Web browsers—Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Opera. When enabled, the extension takes care of encrypting most non-secure data with HTTPS.

Applicable to laptops, tablets and phones

Activate the laptop’s built-in firewall

Every notebook operating system, Windows and Mac OS X included, has built-in firewalls. These are meant to block malicious traffic from being received on your PC, and equally, from leaving with sensitive data. These are the best options for most users, since they don’t require any manual set-up.

Applicable to laptops

Security solutions for Android and iOS

For Android tablets and phones, you can download the free AVG AntiVirus Security app. If you are using an iPad or iPhone, there is the Trend Micro Mobile Security software app that costs $23.99 (around 1,440) a year. Both apps offer real time scanning of downloaded files. While it is good to have an additional layer of security, it is important to note that real time-monitoring apps will negatively affect performance and battery life on an older smartphone or tablet.

Also, download and install the operating system (Android, iOS) updates, once you are notified about the availability of one. Google and Apple update security credentials and fix any vulnerabilities discovered over time. All the installed apps must also be updated from the application store, because developers boost security with newer versions.

Applicable to tablets and phones

Third-party security software for Windows

If you travel a lot and do end up using free Wi-Fi more often than not, it’s imperative to have security software installed on your laptop. Microsoft offers the free-to-download Security Essentials suite, which has real time scanning for malware, and notifies you in case a software tries to disable the system’s built-in firewall. Norton Internet Security (2,489.99 for Windows; $49.99, or around 3,000, for Mac OS X) or AVG Internet Security (1,299 for Windows) are good options too. Both run real time scans in the background to detect new threats, and activate their own firewall. These firewalls work silently in the background, but offer a greater degree of customization for advanced users.

Applicable to laptops