Wi-Fi hotspots present a unique set of security problems, quite different from the security issues involved in home and office networks. These hotspots have unknown computers accessing them. And in this case, the very nature of a public hotspot demands that it broadcasts its SSID. A public hotspot also has to do away with encryption and MAC address filtering to enable hassle free access to all users.
Even if a public hotspot used encryption and user verification, it is not possible to tell which customer accesses the network with a malicious intent.
Under these circumstances, the precautions have to come from the users who access a WiFi public hotspot. Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself while using a public hotspot.
1. Use legitimate access points
This is an often overlooked, nevertheless important safety step. Malicious access points that connect to hijackers’ databases have started coming up everywhere. These have the same SSID as a legitimate access point. The malicious ones can collect such information as your usernames, passwords and even credit card data of people who sign up for new services.
Steer clear of anything that doesn’t look as coming from a legitimate provider. Also check the list of all legitimate SSIDs in any given area. Avoid setting the wireless card in your gadgets to automatically connect with any available network. Turn off peer-to-peer mode when you are in a public place to avoid others connecting directly to you, and last but not the least, keep your WiFi card in the off position when you don’t use it!
2. Encrypt your sensitive files
Emails, usernames and passwords and virtually anything you beam from your device to the access point can be intercepted by someone close by. A lot of this information is going as clear text and not in a converted format, making it possible for the interceptor to access your information. Therefore encrypt any sensitive information you send via email from a public hotspot. There are numerous file encryption programs, freeware and shareware to help you with this.
3. Use a VPN
A VPN or virtual private network creates a tunnel between your device and the hotspot, thus preventing anyone in between from intercepting your data. This has become a standard requirement for companies to allow remote employees to connect to their networks. If your company does not provide you with a corporate VPN, you can go for a commercial one like JiWire SpotLock.
4. Set up a personal firewall
Connecting to a public wireless network implies that you are joining a local network of unknown computers. These are on the same IP subnet, so it is easier for them to capture the traffic between your computer and the hotspot. Therefore always install a personal firewall program to protect your personal laptop. In the case of a corporate device, consult the IT manager before installing any firewall.
5. Install and regularly update your anti-virus software
Public networks are places where your machine is the most vulnerable to attacks from viruses and other malicious code. It is more important here to have effective antivirus software in your system. Also take care to visit the vendor’s website and download the latest update, or avail the auto-update features.
6. Update your OS
Most large utility and business software vendors like Microsoft and Apple frequently develop additional security patches for their operating system and programs. In the case of Microsoft Windows, you can visit the Windows Update site to get the new patches. In the case of Mac OS, enable the automatic Software Update feature in System Preferences.
Also be wary of the attachments that come with emails, as most of the recent viruses and worms have spread through them.
7. Ensure privacy
Take care while you are typing information like name and password while you are at a public hotspot. There are people around you.
8. Use Web-based email instead of Outlook
Avoid sending emails through Outlook, Eudora or Apple Mail when you’re using a public hotspot. Always use web-based email that uses secure http.
9. Disable file sharing
You may be using file sharing while you are using your home or office network. Make sure that this feature is turned off before you access a public hotspot, for obvious reasons.
10. Protect your confidential files with strong passwords
Use a strong password for access to your computer and a separate password to protect sensitive files. It would be a good idea to back up this with your most important data stored in an encrypted keychain storage device.
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