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Encompass® Insurance Insights & Articles

Using Public Wi-Fi: Protecting Data on Public Networks

From coffee shops to airports, free Wi-Fi is a ubiquitous and convenient option for working while traveling. Using public Wi-Fi networks can be risky. Joining a public network might expose your computer to cybersecurity threats like viruses, malware and "man-in-the-middle" attacks. While a public Wi-Fi network may never be as secure as your home or work network, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

People in a cafe using their laptops.

In general, hackers want targets that require minimal or no effort to access. Imagine a burglar who is considering two different homes to rob. The house with the wide-open front door is a lot more appealing than the house with a door that's closed, locked and under camera surveillance.

These are some security steps that make it more difficult for hackers to gain access to your computer, steal data or add malware and viruses.

1. Use a known network with a password.

Open, non-password-protected networks offer hackers an easy pathway into your computer. In crowded public areas, one trick hackers use is to create look-alike Wi-Fi networks that don't require a password to join. For example, if you are at a coffee shop where the Wi-Fi network is "CUP_OF_JOE," a hacker might create a network with a nearly identical name, like "CUPS_OF_JOE." The hacker then leaves the network "open" so there's no need for you to enter a password. Joining the network seems easy and convenient for busy travelers, who may not think twice about the network's validity. A good rule of thumb is to only join known networks that require a password or authentication and to verify the network name and password in advance.

2. Subscribe to paid hotspots or activate your own.

If you travel frequently for work, you may be familiar with paid Boingo hot spots or other hot spots offered by a wireless or cable network provider. These hot spots offer tiered pricing with hourly, daily or monthly use fees. While no network is ever 100% risk-free, paid networks require more effort for a hacker to access, helping to diminish your risk of attack.

In addition to paid public hot spots, U.S. telecoms also offer mobile hot spots that you can bring with you wherever you travel. It is easy to encrypt these devices and control your own network. These devices have an upfront cost and monthly service fee or recurring contract. Additionally, until 5G becomes more widespread, these hotspots may only be as fast as a 3G or 4G connection, a speed that isn't optimal for streaming or video conferencing. However, you'll be in full control over the network — a level of control you won't get on a public network.

3. Avoid using public Wi-Fi to access personal data or download programs.

It's a best practice to assume that you — and your data — are being monitored. As a rule of thumb, do not send personal data, bank data, credit/debit card data, health data, passwords or any other data that you don't want to be taken or used by another party. Remember to not download anything on a public network as that can be an easy way for hackers to implant malware or viruses onto your computer.

4. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

If you're on any network, using a Virtual Private Network, also known as a VPN, provides an extra security layer for data protection and browser privacy. With a VPN, your activity is encrypted through a private server, making it difficult for would-be hackers to monitor your activities, IP addresses and data transmission. VPN is an easy, affordable barrier that you can control.

5. Check for HTTPS (HyperText Transfer Protocol Secure) and SSL (Secure Socket Layer).

Before accessing a website, confirm that the website is hypertext transfer protocol secure by checking "HTTPS://" in the address bar. These sites follow secure protocols, whereas HTTP sites do not. In addition to using an HTTPS site, some sites offer SSL connections, which allow you to create another type of secure connection between your computer and the website you are using. Most banks, credit card and healthcare-related sites use SSL protocols — often activated by a prompt or certificate — and allow you to pass personal data more securely.

Using Wi-Fi while traveling may never be 100% risk-free, but you can take steps that will make you a less appealing target and safeguard your devices.

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