How to use public Wi-Fi networks safely, and protect your data and information

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  • You can use public Wi-Fi networks safely if you stick to networks you know, always visit https secure sites, turn off AirDrop and File Sharing, and even use a VPN.
  • Public WiFi networks are convenient when you’re away from home, but they can also leave you and your data at risk if you’re not careful.
  • It’s important to take a few easy precautions to keep your information safe when you use public networks.
  • Visit Business Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories .

Using Wi-Fi in your own home is usually safe and secure. You know who set it up and who is on the network at any given time, and unless everyone in your home is trying to stream Netflix at once, it’s usually fast and efficient.

Public Wi-Fi networks are a separate beast. Logging into one is a roll of the dice — it’s probably safe, but there’s really no way of knowing. Joining a public network could mean exposing your information to strangers who may happen to be on the same network, or in rarer cases, cybercriminals.

How to use public Wi-Fi safely

You don’t have to avoid using public Wi-Fi altogether — you just need to be smart about how you use it.

Stick to networks you know

Whenever possible, it’s good to connect to familiar networks. Wi-Fi at a friend’s or family member’s house is more than likely safe, for example. But, if you need to connect to Wi-Fi in an unfamiliar place, try a public network like one at a Starbucks.

Whichever public networks you do connect to when you’re out, try to keep them consistent — the fewer networks you use your information to sign up for, the less chance you have of that information going somewhere you don’t want it.

In general, be wary of public networks that ask for too much information to join. Also ask yourself, if a network is open to everyone, what are the people running that network getting in return? For a business like Starbucks, or for companies like Comcast — who run Xfinity hotspots for their customers — that benefit is obvious. If it’s less clear, it might be because they’re using the hotspot as a data mine.

To that end, also make sure you read the terms and conditions, if they exist, of unfamiliar networks, especially dubious ones. If you’re not careful, you could end up signing away the right to your privacy.

If all else fails, and there are no networks you feel you can safely connect to, try using your phone as a hotspot instead.

Make sure you use HTTPS

When you use the internet from a safe network, it doesn’t really matter which letters come before the website address in your browser. On a public network, however, it becomes very important.

If the website you’re on has http at the beginning, you could be leaving yourself open to cyber attacks and information thieves — it means your connection is not encrypted. Encrypted, safe connections will have https at the beginning, not just http.

Google Chrome will alert you if your connection isn’t secure — with other browsers, however, you’ll have to remember to check, especially when you’re not on a secure network.

Note: According to the FTC, most mobile apps and sites don’t encrypt data properly. If you’re trying to use the internet on your phone when you’re out, as far as privacy is concerned, it’s better to stick to your cellular network.

Try not to use AirDrop or File Sharing

AirDrop and File Share are easy ways to share files from your computer to someone else’s over Wi-Fi, without having to send an email or other sort of message. This feature is great in offices or homes, but can be dangerous on a public network.

While it’s always funny to see those online stories about people randomly sharing funny or interesting files to strangers’ devices, it’s probably more prudent to make sure this can’t happen to you. You can turn off AirDrop or File Share in your computer’s settings, under “Network and Sharing” for PCs, or “Sharing” for Macs.

Additionally, many computers will ask if you want to “trust” a new network when you first join it. You should only ever agree to trust home networks that you’re certain are secure.

For extra security, use a VPN

A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts data travelling to or from your device, and connects you to a private server. This means that it’s far more difficult for people to look at or steal your data.

A VPN is usually something you have to pay for — there are free ones out there, but any that you find are likely to be a front for data collection or other potentially suspicious marketing practices. If you’re the type of person who travels a lot, it might be worth investing in a VPN.

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