Free public wi-fi, whether it’s in your local coffee shop, station or a shopping precinct, makes it easy to get online anywhere. There are a few risks, but a little awareness will help keep you safe and connected – read on to discover the top five mistakes to avoid when using public wi-fi
1) Doing your online banking
Why it’s a problem – Online banking or shopping via public wi-fi using unsecured websites or an unsecured network is risky. Banks use encryption to keep your details safe, but while some public wi-fi hotspots are encrypted, most aren’t – and if the network isn’t secure, there’s an increased chance a hacker could eavesdrop on the data your device transmits and receives, potentially recording login details or other sensitive information.
What to do instead – For greater security you should always use your home or workplace wi-fi to do online banking, or to make any financial or otherwise sensitive transactions. If you really have to do a bit of banking on the move, try using 3G or 4G rather than public wi-fi, and make sure that the bank’s web address begins ‘https’ to ensure the site has a good degree of security (though this is still not entirely risk-free). If you click on a page starting ‘http’ while doing financial transactions, even after starting from a website beginning with ‘https’, log out immediately.
2) Assuming wi-fi is faster than 3G
Why it’s a problem – Public wi-fi is enticing – it promises a far speedier internet connection than your phone’s 3G. But you might access a weak connection, be too far from the hotspot’s router, or the broadband may simply be very slow. Speed will be even more of a problem if lots of other people are also using the network, because you’ll be competing for bandwidth.
What to do instead – Your phone’s data connection may offer faster speeds than a public wi-fi network. The latest standard, 4G – if available – offers a real boost in speed over 3G. In both cases, be aware of data limits. Some Android phone manufacturers let your handset automatically detect the faster option, wi-fi or mobile data, in any given hotspot. This option can be accessed via the phone’s wi-fi settings. Apple’s new mobile operating system (from iOS 9 onward) has a feature called Wi-Fi Assist, which will automatically switch you to 3G or 4G if the wi-fi network weakens.
3) Not securing your device
Why it’s a mistake – Any security weaknesses on your device will make it more vulnerable. Failing to enable a firewall on a Windows PC is a mistake, as this helps defend your machine. On Macs, having the firewall switched on (it’s switched off by default) is less of an issue because of the way Apple’s operating system, OS X, and apps are designed. However, for both Macs and Windows PCs, it’s vital you have a good Windows security package installed.
Failing to apply updates to the operating system and other software is an error, too – updates are designed to patch security loopholes. On a Windows computer, you can make it harder for others to access your files over a public network by selecting the Public Network option under Network and Sharing Centre.
What to do instead – In Windows, you can access the firewall settings to enable it via the Control Panel. You then need to make sure it is turned on for each type of network option, including Public. Also in the Control Panel, you should click the Network and Sharing Centre and then click the link to your wi-fi network – labelled Home, Work or Public. Select the Public Network option to limit access to your PC over the network. This turns off your Network Discovery, making your computer invisible to others on the network. It also disables Public Folder Sharing, stopping other network users accessing your folders. Windows should display confirmation of the change.
If you have a Mac, it’s worth knowing that more malware appeared in the first quarter of 2017 than in the whole previous year, so don’t assume 'Macs don’t get viruses' – it’s no longer true – and install a good antivirus security program.
4) Doing too much on free wi-fi networks
Why it’s a mistake – Tempting as free ‘open’ networks can be, since they avoid the hassle of logins and passwords, they can be risky to use. The hotspot may well be legitimate, perhaps in a café wanting to provide a service for its customers. However, you can expose yourself to extra risk by using open networks. The lack of a password makes it easier for others to potentially intercept your data.
What to do instead – Avoiding free networks is the safest option, though this may seem overly cautious. If you’re going to use one, you should take a moment to verify its authenticity with the provider and avoid making any financial transactions while online, or using services you need to log-in to in order to use, such as Facebook or other social media sites.
5) Installing software using public wi-fi
Why it’s a mistake – Software installed using public wi-fi can potentially expose your computer to malware infections. You’re at little-to-no risk if you’re simply carrying out regular PC updates or updating existing programs or apps. But if a free hotspot has been created by someone with malicious intent, a favourite trick is to prompt you to install an update that can load a program to steal your personal data.
What to do instead – Not installing or updating software using public wi-fi is the safest policy. It is far better to use your secured home wi-fi network to download programs to your laptop. Smartphones and tablets tend to be less at risk because of their secure app store environments.