Being in Europe this summer, I realised how good we have it here in Vietnam when it comes to access to public wifi. At least here in Saigon, it seems that every shop on every corner on every street will give you access to their wifi network.
Although convenient, public wifi networks come with their own security considerations as they are inherently less protected. For instance, most coffee shops or restaurants offer access to their in-house network as an added value for patrons. In order to make these networks accessible to the public, they provide easy access to the internet by disclosing the password publicly on a sign or table, disabling the password altogether, or asking you to sign in with an email address, Facebook account or phone number. It’s unlikely that the establishment itself has an elaborate plot to get you to connect to their wifi network so they can access your device to scan your device for personal data, but more often, it is the other people who are connected to that same public network that may be trying to harvest your data to use it fraudulently. Having said that, there are free wifi providers that do track what you’re doing on their network so they can tailor their marketing accordingly.
Following some of the recommendations below can lessen the chances of being subject to data harvesting while using public networks:
Heed the S
“HTTP” stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol and usually starts every website address (ie: http://www.google.com). “HTTPS” adds an extra layer of security when browsing a site where all communication between the computer and the website is encrypted so that other computers cannot decipher the information that is being uploaded or downloaded between them.
Pay attention to this as it makes it harder for potential snoopers to view your online activity. Browsers like Google Chrome now have a feature in which visiting an “HTTP” site produces a notification telling you that the site is “not secure”.
Read the Fine Print
Access to some public networks (such as at airports, for example), come with a pop-up disclaimer before you agree to connect. If you care to find out what data these providers are collecting during your session, it’s worth taking a gander at these terms and conditions before clicking on “agree”. Sometimes, free networks aren’t actually free as you are unknowingly giving up your privacy by simply connecting.
Disabling File Sharing is Caring
Advances in operating system software have made it much easier for us to share data through wireless protocols. If you are truly concerned about keeping sensitive data on your computer secure, it’s worth toggling file sharing settings in order to disparage hacking attempts whilst connected to networks with questionable security.
• For those with Macs: System Preferences > Sharing – proceed to deselect everything on the list. Then, open a Finder window, click on AirDrop in the sidebar and select “Allow me to be discovered by: No One” in the drop down menu. You can also disable AirDrop on an iOS device from the Settings app.
• If you are running Windows: navigate to the Network and Sharing Center, click on Change advanced sharing settings, and then Turn off file and printer sharing. This will effectively disable incoming connections that are attempting to pull data wirelessly from your PC.
Configuring a virtual private network from your device has become much easier than it was just a few years ago. There are many providers that now have apps or software clients that make it very simple to use their service from a mobile device or computer. When connected, transferred data is encrypted between your device and a secure server so you can stay browse anonymously, making it much harder for others connected to the network to monitor your online activity and acquire your personal information. This is the most effective practice to remain secure online.
However, choosing a legitimate and stable VPN is not as straightforward. Certainly, paid services are more likely to provide better protection, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any reliable free ones available. Some free services give you a limited amount of monthly data usage under their VPN before having to pay or give you a trial before you decide to purchase. My recommendations are: TunnelBear, ExpressVPN and Windscribe.
Although it is true that VPNs tend to slow your online speeds, it’s worth the compromise if you’re serious about security. In addition, for those traveling to China and other such countries that ban a multitude of social media apps, a VPN is a must if you want to stay connected to certain platforms.
Sense and Sensibility
A little bit of sensibility goes a long way. I know it’s probably common sense, but I’ll mention it again anyway. If you receive pops-ups asking you to install extra software, browser extensions or requesting for all kinds of personal contact information, it’s a good indication that you should get off that free public network you’re on. I know that installing system updates is a tedious and sometimes painful process when it causes glitchiness or lag on your device, but remember that outdated operating systems are also more vulnerable to security exploits.
Lastly, there are now companies that do provide global wifi/internet services. In the recent years companies like SkyRoam and KeepGo have developed paid subscriptions that allow you to access the internet internationally in a vast majority of countries. These services tend to be cheaper than paying for data roaming charges from telecom companies, so it might be of interest to explore these options.