Tips For Safe Surfing On Public Wi-Fi Networks

By Matthew Braga

It’s trivial for unencrypted information to be intercepted or sniffed — unless you know how to keep yourself safe.

Go to your nearest mall, library or school, and you’ll probably have an easier time finding an open wireless hotspot than a washroom; that’s just the way things are. Not that we’re complaining, of course. Blanketed, city-wide Wi-Fi has been a long time coming, and we can’t wait until that pervasive vision comes true.

However, the risks associated with public wireless hotspots should be abundantly clear — and increasing the number of hotspots will only make those risks worse. With some freely available software, it’s trivial for unencrypted information to be intercepted or sniffed, often without you knowing. Here are a few tips for safer public browsing, with the hopes of keeping your identity where it belongs.

1. The Basics

This is likely old hat for a few of you, but is worth repeating anyhow. If you have a firewall, turn it on. If you’re sharing files, folders or printers, turn them off. In Windows, you can do the former via Windows 7’s System and Security Center, and the latter from within Network and Sharing, both of which can be found in your Control Panel.

As for Mac OS X users, Sharing options are quite obviously located within the Sharing panel. Meanwhile, the Security panel contains Firewall rules and settings. The goal here is not to secure information you may be sending out, but to protect other users on the network from getting in. After all, it’s easy to forget about that hasty network share you created at your last LAN party, and the last thing you want is the latte-sipping hipster at your local coffee shop stealing your Mass Effect saves.

2. HTTPS Connection

You’d be amazed to see just how much information is sent and received over the internet in plain text. With the right software, it can all be exposed rather easily too. Thus, some websites and services allow you to encrypt your log-in credentials and activities with a secure HTTP connection (or HTTPS). Even if you’re a Chrome user, you should see the address switch to “https://“ when encryption is active, often with some sort of lock icon to go with it.

Popular sites, such as Twitter, Facebook and GMail, allow HTTPS connections, but you have to enable them yourself from the options first. Alternatively, there’s a handy Firefox extension called HTTPS Everywhere that will automatically divert you to the HTTPS domain for a number of popular sites that support the protocol. A full list is available on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website, but in our experience, it’s pretty comprehensive. Chrome users can also achieve a similar effect with the KB SSL Enforcer extension, found here.

If you’re wondering why this is even necessary in the first place, you need look no further than Firesheep. The popular Firefox add-on was developed by security researchers to demonstrate just how insecure public wireless networks can be, and allows unencrypted cookies to be stolen from other users connected to the same wireless network. Used nefariously, Firesheep users can gain access to your Facebook account, for example, unless a secure HTTP connection has been enabled.

3. Set up a VPN

A Virtual Private Network funnels your web traffic securely through another machine, as opposed to the network you’re actually connecting to, encrypting it along the way. The notion of setting up a VPN can be daunting, but it’s actually a relatively simple process — and also the most effective method for keeping your data safe and secure on a public wireless network. Lifehacker has covered the VPN setup process in great detail, using freely available software such as Hamachi and Privoxy, though you’ll need another machine that’s always online (preferably at home) for this approach to work.

There are other options, of course, such as Hotspot Shield — perhaps better known for giving non-Americans access to geoblocked content. Available for Mac and PC, this piece of software handles the VPN setup process for you, though performance and speed probably won’t match what you can achieve with a setup of your own.

As always, if you have your own tips or suggestion for safe, secure browsing in public places, let us known below!

Lead image via Flickr user ClawzCTR.