Public WiFi – More Dangerous Than You Think

You all know me… I’m concerned about personal security and privacy and staying safe online.  I think it’s an important part of our lives and certainly an important part of information literacy in ANY library.  And it’s challenging to balance how much you choose to share about yourself on social networking sites while remaining safe and secure.  That’s a balance that each of us must find for ourselves.  Some choose not to have much of a social presence at all, while others choose levels of transparency sharing much of their lives.

One thing we don’t often think about is using free Wifi.  We go into a local coffee shop, see a strong Wifi signal and think, “All right!  I hit the lottery today!”  And then we sit with our coffee or cocoa and see what our friends are doing on Facebook, check into the location and read reviews on Yelp, maybe bookmark the site on Delicious or Diigo.  We might read the news, or open apps on our smartphone or tablet to play a game, connect on dating sites, or check our bank balances.  The perception of privacy in these settings, though, are not always as they seem.  I recently read an article telling the story of taking a hacker to a cafe to see what would happen.  Within minutes, the hacker had names, birthdays, logins, passwords, where people were born, the schools they attended, and the last five things they googled.  I don’t know how that makes you feel, but certainly it scares the bejeezus out of me.

To start, it’s very easy to hack.  It’s easy to seek out sites that allow the downloading of software that reads Internet traffic.  It’s easy to download and run penetration software.  I know librarians who run penetration testing software on laptops to test the integrity of their own library networks.  Add some inexpensive hardware to this software, and you can route traffic from a free WiFi spot through your laptop and sift out anything you need to wreck complete havoc in someone’s personal and/or financial life.

So what can you do?   Stop using public WiFi.  That’s the safest.  But not always practical.  Data plans are expensive, especially when shared among family members.  And when you hit your limit and inadvertently add a gig or two, the bill adds up FAST.

So when you must use public Wifi, follow these tips –

  • Use a VPN service.  VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a way to make an encrypted tunnel to the resource you’re using and keeps your traffic secure.  There are free options and paid options, even for smartphones.
  • Turn off “Automatically connect to trusted sources” on your laptop, tablet, or smartphone.  It’s too easy to spoof a trusted source and your device doesn’t know any different.
  • Turn off Wifi until you need it, and then choose the network you trust.
  • Do not, EVER, in public do anything on the Internet that will compromise your safety.  Call the bank to make a transfer or to check a balance instead of using the web or an app.  Don’t log into sites that house personal data like social security numbers, credit card numbers, and the like.
  • Keep your operating system up to date.  A hacker sniffing the network can see if you’ve neglected to run that latest update and often knows what holes exist in your outdated OS.
  • Purge your saved location data, saved networks, browser history regularly, or turn storing these things off altogether.

But the best practice is to avoid public Wifi completely.  Especially in heavily populated areas or places susceptible to sniffing, like airports, coffee shops, and hotels.   When you’re traveling, plan ahead and buy extra cell data for that time period and use a hotspot from your device.  And, of course, regularly go through your privacy settings and restrict what you put out on your devices, social networking, and websites.

To read the article featuring the story I mentioned, find it here –

Be safe out there!