Stay secure when using public WiFi

Alan Stainer runs an IT company specialising in technical advice and support and website design, based in the Horsham District. In each column he’ll look at issues affecting computer use.

Thursday, 19th September 2013, 9:58 am
JPCT 150713 Alan Stainer. Photo by Derek Martin

It seems that everywhere you go, there is free public WiFi. You go to McDonalds and it has WiFi. You go to Costa and it has WiFi. Tesco, hotels, libraries, everywhere seems to have free WiFi.

It is liberating and useful that WiFi is so widely available, especially when parts of the country have poor 3G and 4G signal strength. It is a money saver too, stopping you from using up that valuable mobile phone data allowance.

There is a cost though, but it is not one that you might immediately think about. Security.

The sad truth of the matter is that there are individuals with crime on their minds and public WiFi gives them an opportunity to steal your bank details and perform identity theft.

Criminals can easily create their own WiFi hotspots and will choose a name that closely resembles a legitimate WiFi signal. For instance, the name of the bar or restaurant you are in. The best defence against this type of deception is to ask the WiFi owner for the connection details first, so that there can be no doubt you are using the correct one.

Even if you are on a legitimate network, you still need to be cautious. Criminals can listen in on public networks with the right software, so it is best to avoid using anything that may give away your passwords and bank details. If you visit a site that begins with https, then that should be encrypted which offers some protection.

If in doubt and you really need to use something sensitive and WiFi is the only option (if you are using a laptop for example), then your best alternative is to create your own WiFi hotspot using your smartphone. It is easy to do and safe, but watch that data allowance!