Many people believe that visiting obscure websites or downloading files from illegal sources is the only real security risk when going online. While such behavior certainly increases your risk of catching a malware infection, it’s not the only way to get into trouble. One other major safety hazard is using public wireless networks. In this article you will find key security precautions you should take before connecting to a public wireless network, whether or not it is secured.
Connecting to public Wi-Fi has become a routine for many of us. Conveniently, you can find public wireless networks almost everywhere and often they are free. Unfortunately, not even a secured network guarantees your safety, as you never know who else is using the same network and trying to read your data. The only way you can protect yourself and make it harder for someone to sniff your transferred data or access your files, is by running security software on your own computer.
Enable Your Firewall
A firewall is your first line of protection against outside intruders. It allows you to control network transmissions and alerts you if anything but an approved process tries to send data or access your computer. If you would like to learn more, have a look at the article How Does A Firewall Work? [MakeUseOf Explains].
Both Windows and Mac OS X come with a firewall. In Windows 7 you can enabled the firewall via the Control Panel under > System and Security > Windows Firewall > Turn Windows Firewall on or off (left hand menu). We also showed you How To Enable the Firewall In Mac OS X Snow Leopard.
If you are unsure whether the default Windows firewall is sufficient, what its weaknesses are, or which alternatives are out there, I recommend you to look into these articles:
- How Reliable Are Default Windows Security Apps?
- Windows 7 Firewall: How It Compares Against Other Firewalls
- 3 Things You Should Know About Your Windows 7 Firewall
Disable File & Folder Sharing In Windows
Windows allows you to share files, printers, and folders on your network. What makes life easier in your home network, can quickly turn into an annoyance or a security risk when connecting to a public network. Be sure that these options are turned off for public networks.
To control your sharing setting, go to the Control Panel and click > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center > Change advanced sharing settings (left hand menu). Open the Public profile and turn off all sharing options.
Once you connect to a new public network, be sure to tell Windows that the new network belongs to the public category when the respective selection window comes up.
Use a Secure Connection (HTTPS)
Whenever transferring sensitive information, for example when shopping online or connecting to your online bank account, you should use a secure connection. Secure means that the data you are sending are encrypted. The full website address in your browser’s URL bar indicates whether or not you are using a secure connection. It will either start with http:// (not secured) or https:// (secured).
To learn more about HTTPS and to find out how you can connect through HTTPS per default using HTTPS Everywhere, check out this article: What Is HTTPS & How To Enable Secure Connections Per Default
Connect Through a Virtual Private Network
Since HTTPS relies on encryption provided by the website server, it is not something you can always use as it’s not always available. An alternative is to use a virtual private network (VPN). Instead of connecting directly to the Internet, you establish an encrypted connection to a server, which then connects you to the Internet.
We have previously written about free VPN services for Windows and iOS here:
- 7 Completely Free VPN Services To Protect Your Privacy
- 2 Free VPN Services For Secure Browsing On Your iOS Device
To read more about HTTPS, VPN, and also tunneling, have a look into the article How To Combat WiFi Security Risks When Connecting To A Public Network.
Additional Security Software & Precautions
In addition to using a firewall, turning off sharing settings, and connecting through HTTPS where possible or VPN, you should also use standard anti-malware software. This includes anti-virus tools and malware scanners. We have reviewed some of the best applications and additional tools in these articles:
- The 10 Best Free Anti-Virus Programs
- 7 Essential Security Downloads You MUST Have Installed
- 9 Ways To Prevent Identity Theft By Computer Hackers
Also read more on How People Are Hacking Wireless Networks & How To Protect Yourself.
How do you protect your data when connecting to a public wireless network?
Image credits: Free Wireless Internet via Shutterstock