“The Cost of Free Wifi”
The flexibility to work remotely, from any location in the world, is a tempting offer. But without proper internet security knowledge and protocols, remote work may lead to unexpected harm to your personal and business data. The culprit? Your Wi-Fi network. In fact, free Wi-Fi might come at a price you’re not willing to pay.
Nowadays, we take Wi-Fi access for granted. Using the internet, we do everything from banking, finding love, streaming entertainment, checking the weather, finding jobs, communicating with friends and family—all of this is enabled with a Wi-Fi connection.
But many people may be unaware of the darkside of a Wi-Fi connection. To understand this risk, let’s get into what Wi-Fi really is.
Verizon offers a helpful description of Wi-Fi. “Wi-Fi uses radio waves to transmit data from your wireless router to your Wi-Fi enabled devices like your TV, smartphone, tablet and computer.” In practice, this occurs in two simple steps. First, your computer or other device translates data from the site you’re connecting to into radio waves. Wi-Fi enabled devices are equipped with a wireless adaptor that does this translation. Then, the Wi-Fi router decodes that radio signal and sends that information to the internet via ethernet connections.
The coding and decoding of data involves communication and transmission of whatever sites or information you’re providing or receiving to and from the internet. That means the devices on the Wi-Fi network communicate with each other. And, if there are malicious devices on a network, your device may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
This is where important precautions come into play.
Open Wi-Fi networks such as those used in airports, coffee shops, public libraries etc, allow anyone and everyone to access the internet all at once. With the right know-how, individuals with malicious intent can communicate and manipulate your data without your knowledge. Even using sites that seem safe can be risky– if the website you’re visiting doesn’t encrypt your data, it can easily be viewed by others on the same network.
Even if there are no hackers on the network, you may be unwittingly sharing your data with companies. The Federal Trade Commission advises that, “When you sign on to public Wi-Fi, you may also be sharing your data with the companies providing the Wi-Fi. Many public Wi-Fi networks such as in airports and hotels will also prompt you to install a “digital certificate” to use their internet.” In a world where data is bought and sold, keeping your information private is a way to protect your peace of mind and quality of life. This is just another reason to stay vigilant about the Wi-Fi networks you use.
Let’s dive into a few best practices to employ when connecting to Wi-Fi.
Watch out for Unsecure Connection. When you search for a new website, odds are you probably don’t type “https” before accessing the site. In fact, you might not even notice it’s there. But those five small letters can tell us something important about the security of our data on the web.
https or Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure demonstrates that a website is secured by an additional layer of security– the secure socket layer/ transport layer security protocol. All these fancy protocols just mean your data is encrypted while on the site. In other words, when your data is sent to and from a device and the internet, it’s in a code. Hackers, or anyone else accessing your data, will be unable to glean anything useful out of it, in most cases.
If you use Chrome, maybe you’ve gotten this error. Other website browsers have similar error codes. They warn you when you’re trying to access a site that is not secured by proper security protocols.
This helps users to avoid potentially unsafe websites. Inputting data into sites without the additional security protocol makes your data vulnerable to data breaches and other malicious hacks.
Similarly, Wi-Fi networks can be unsecured, putting your data and identity at risk. Wi-Fi networks at places like a coffee shop or other public location are often set up for convenience and allow anyone to access the network. This means all Wi-Fi connected devices can access the data shared by other devices on the network.
Without a password protected network, Wi-Fi connections are not using up to date security protocols, known as the Wi-Fi Protected Access, or WPA. By requiring a Wi-Fi password to access a network, your data is encrypted, which is an important layer of security when using a network.
In summary, here are a few tips to make sure you have a secure connection.
Make sure any sites you access use the most up to date internet security protocols.
Double check your free Wi-Fi connection before proceeding. Nowadays, many free Wi-Fi options will add a “login” page that may appear to be secure. However, these pages are often only terms and conditions that don’t offer any network encryption.
Use WPA2 Wi-Fi settings when setting up any new Wi-Fi connection. Using the highest level of protection available will ensure your best chance at protecting your data.
Avoid Sharing Private Information. If you’re connected to public Wi-Fi, don’t go to websites where your personal information is stored. Regardless of the site’s security measures, it’s best to wait to access this type of information until you can be sure your connection is private. Think of it this way– what information would you not mind everyone around you viewing? When using public Wi-Fi, your internet use is also essentially public.
Consider using a VPN. VPN’s have recently become all the rage, and now, consumers can access a VPN service for a small subscription fee. But what is a VPN, and why does it matter?
A VPN is a virtual private network, and it fulfills three important functions.
It creates a private network from a public internet connection.
VPNs mask your internet protocol (IP) address so your online actions are virtually untraceable.
VPN services establish secure and encrypted connections to provide greater privacy than even a secured Wi-Fi hotspot.
If you use public wifi frequently, a VPN is a great option to allow you to maintain the same ease of access without fear of your data being stolen or manipulated.
At the end of the day, knowing where your data is going and who has access to said data is crucial to maintaining your personal online security. This is a complicated issue, but a great place to start is by understanding how you access the internet. Wifi networks enable connection, but are also full of risks if used incorrectly. By ensuring you have a secured connection, encrypted access, and avoiding sharing private information on public wifi, you’ll be well on your way to taking control of your digital footprint.