The British telecommunications company BT has recently announced that it is on target to turn on 500,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in London in time for the start of the Olympics in July. This news has only served to demonstrate the prevalence of the internet in today's society. More and more people are connecting to the internet while they are out and about in coffee shops, libraries or even on the train. The use of these hotspots or open wireless access, however, is not without risks. The release of the Firefox extension 'Firesheep' has helped demonstrate how easy it is to find and take over the sessions of people using open, unencrypted Wi-Fi and gain access to Facebook, email, and bank accounts. Convincingly named networks can also lead people to connect their computers to that of a hacker. You should not be dissuaded from using public Wi-Fi altogether, but can follow some simple rules and guidelines to keep your information safe.
Firstly, and most obviously, try not to visit websites that have sensitive information while you are using public internet. It may be tempting to buy something new or check your bank balance while you are out but it is in your own interest to wait until you get home. If you do need to access these websites on public Wi-Fi make sure that the data you are sending is encrypted. Most banking or e-commerce websites will use SSL ('Secure Sockets Layer') to encrypt important data. You can also use SSL on many other sites, although some will not use it by default. Both Twitter and Facebook will let you enable the use of SSL in your account settings while email clients such as Gmail and Hotmail will use SSL automatically. You can tell if SSL is being used if you see 'https' instead of 'http' in the address bar.
Choose your network wisely, if there are several networks that could be the free Wi-Fi offered by your local coffee shop, double check with someone who works there to find out which one it is. Try to choose hotspots using security technology WPA2 rather than WPA or WEP as it is stronger. Make sure that your computer will not automatically connect to unknown wireless networks and ensure your firewall is turned on. You can also check that 'sharing' is turned off; this is a useful feature for connecting to printers and other devices wirelessly when using a secure network, but when connected to a public Wi-Fi hotspot it could leave your computer wide open to unauthorised access.
One of the most important ways that you can use a public Wi-Fi network more securely is through the use of a VPN. VPN stands for 'virtual private network' and will create a 'tunnel' of encrypted data. VPNs are particularly popular with businesses; they are used by workers outside of the office in order to keep any data and information as secure as it would be inside the office. Many VPN providers offer 'business VPNs' to companies - this means that their members of staff who are out of the office can work securely and stay connected to the rest of the office. Personal VPNs or 'VPNs-for-hire' are equally available. There are hundreds of different VPNs on offer so you need to choose wisely and find one that you can trust as it will be handling your data and information. Using a virtual private network is a quick and easy way of securing your online activity in a public place and is a useful way to work away from the office securely.
Keeping your information safe on your own secure home network is extremely important, so it follows that you need to be extra vigilant while you are online out and about. Using public Wi-Fi safely need not be stressful; you just need to make sure you are aware of the potential risks and take steps to avoid them.
© Izzy Evans 2012
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