Consumers are oblivious to the dangers of connecting in a free wireless environment. If they actually knew how vulnerable they are, all that coffee shops would do is sell coffee.Nobody would stick around and connect to the internet.
Everyone—and I mean everyone—always asks me if they should connect to public WiFi. The short answer is yes, but you need to install virtual private network software to encrypt your connection. More on that in a bit.
There’s plenty to know and a few things you can do to protect yourself. Here are some terms you should know:
Router encryption: The router you hop onto at the coffee shop will most likely have no encryption at all. Encryption is the process of encoding messages or information in such a way that eavesdroppers or hackers cannot read them, but that authorized parties can. Routers are built with software options to turn on encryption, but the coffee shop typically doesn’t turn it on because that would mean every person coming in would need a password. And even in that scenario, that doesn’t necessarily mean your data will be secure.
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption: WEP is 15 years old and offers minimal security; WiFi Protected Access (WPA) encryption is better than its predecessor, WEP. WPA is a certification program that was created in response to several serious weaknesses researchers found in WEP. WPA and WPA2 (a subsequent version) are tougher to crack, but not impossible.
Protect yourself when using WiFi:
- Use the most updated and secure version of your browser.
- Consider only sharing data with sites with HTTPS in the address bar; the S signifies that the website itself is encrypted.
- Turn off file sharing. If you share files at home, turn file sharing off in public.
- Turn on your firewall. It should be on by default, but depending on the age of your computers or by accident, it could be off.
- Use a VPN. AVirtual Private Network (VPN) is a network set up with encryption to protect your data from unauthorized access.Hotspot Shield VPN is a good one to use. It’s secure, free to you (supported by ads) and available for PC, Mac, iPhone and Android.
Robert Siciliano is an Identity Theft Expert to Hotspot Shield VPN. He is the author of 99 Things You Wish You Knew Before Your Identity Was Stolen. See him discussing internet and wireless security on Good Morning America. Disclosures.