In hotels, airports, restaurants, and coffee shops, unsecured public Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. We are so used to being connected everywhere that we don’t think twice about connecting to open public wireless connections, even if we don’t know anything about them. As common as they are, and despite the fact that everyone is using them, you have to take some precautions to keep your private information from possibly being intercepted in transmission.
If you are not sure about the need for keeping your information secure on public wireless networks, then you really need to read this:
“We took a hacker to a café and, in 20 minutes, he knew where everyone else was born, what schools they attended, and the last five things they googled.” – Maurits Martijn
Here are some videos showing how attackers can gather personal data on public Wi-Fi:
If this doesn’t convince you for the need for security, then probably nothing will. But, assuming you are convinced, what can you do about it?
Here are some good safety tips for using public Wi-Fi:
The best thing you can do to protect your information transmitted on a public wireless network is to use a VPN. Most people have heard the term VPN from their work, where they have VPN software provided by their office IT staff that may be protecting information transmitted TO AND FROM THEIR OFFICE. A personal VPN is similar, but it can encrypt ALL information traveling on a wireless network. Actually, it can be used for many things, but we are really only talking about how to secure public wireless access in this article. In simple terms, this means that others will not be able to see any of your personal information transmitted on public wireless like they can in the above articles and videos.
There are many different VPN providers to chose from, each with different features, limitations, and pricing. In general, the free or low-cost options (which can be a great choice) usually come with more limitations or a less user-friendly setup. This means that you may have to make some changes to the network properties on your computer to get the VPN set up. If you are a computer novice or not comfortable with making changes to your computer, many of the slightly more expensive products do this for you in the background and are very simple to set up. Also, the larger providers may be more likely to include extras like VPN apps that protect smartphones and tablets in addition to laptops. In Part 2 we’ll talk about which VPN provider I picked and why, and really get into the specifics. For now, I just want you to understand what it is we are trying to protect against, what a personal VPN is, and what some of your options are.
Here is a video from SurfEasy the explains how a personal VPN service works:
When considering a VPN, you’ll want to think about:
- Where do you plan to use it? Some providers offer different pricing for different regions, or discounted pricing if you are only using it in one area (such as a US only plan). If are traveling extensively, look for a company with servers and coverage in the areas where you plan to spend the most time.
- What devices and operating systems are you using? Most of the top companies include coverage for Windows, Mac, Ipads, Iphones, Android devices (phones and tablets), etc.
- How many devices do you have? You can get a plan that includes multiple simultaneous connections if you have multiple devices or traveling with family.
- Price. This should be the least of your concerns. The protection is important and there are plans for any budget. If you don’t plan to use public Wi-Fi often, and just want to have something for occasional protection, you can sign up for a free plan that gives you a limited amount of data per month.
There are many good VPN providers out there. Here are just a few to compare:
These types of attacks can and do happen all the time. This happened to me a few years ago I was traveling in Mexico. Some of my information was stolen while using an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection. A month after returning to the US, I was notified by Google that someone was trying to log in as me from Mexico. Their location services determined that I was in the US and the log in attempts to my account from outside the country were not legitimate, so they blocked it and reset my password.
This is the first post in a series on avoiding the dangers of public Wi-Fi with a personal VPN service.
In the upcoming Part 2 of the personal VPN tutorial I’ll talk about installing, configuring, and using one of the VPN products above.