3 Ways to Secure Your Data While Using Public Wi-Fi

Aug 2, 2019

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Many travelers need to be connected almost constantly, from the plane, to the train, to the hotel.

While there’s less risk these days when connecting to legitimate public networks, such as those found in pretty much every hotel in the world, risks still do exist. For example, an open network is susceptible to sniffing and spoofing, whereby an attacker could follow your trail around the internet or even work to redirect you from a site like Amazon to a page that looks like Amazon in order to steal your login credentials — and we all know what happens next in this story.

That’s why, when you’re connecting to an unfamiliar network or a public network that’s open to the masses, it’s important to pause and make sure you’re surfing responsibly in an effort to keep your information as secure as possible.

Here are actionable tips to keep in mind when connecting to Wi-Fi in hotels and other public places.

In This Post

Use Virtual Private Network (VPN) Software

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

The easiest way to gain peace of mind when transmitting data over a public network is to first install a virtual private network, or VPN. These are basically secure tunnels between your device (laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc.) and the internet. VPNs help protect data from snooping, interference and censorship. Additionally, VPNs can serve as a proxy, allowing you to mask or change your location while surfing anonymously.

On a recent trip to mainland China, I downloaded and installed ExpressVPN on both my MacBook as well as my iPhone before leaving the US. China’s “Great Firewall” blocks popular services like Google, making it difficult for visitors who rely on such entities to function while there.

ExpressVPN is a reputable VPN that creates fast, secure tunnels regardless of where you connect from. Crucially, there’s an option in the program to halt all traffic from your device if the VPN connection fails for any reason. Then, you can reconnect or select a different location in order to resume your internet session. VPNs generally cost around $10 to $15 per month, with many (like ExpressVPN) providing discounts for annual subscriptions.

If you travel frequently for work, your employer may reimburse these charges. Many corporations install Cisco AnyConnect on company-issued laptops. If this is installed on your machine, you’ve already got a VPN at your disposal.

Even if you trust a network, such as a hotspot at a Delta Sky Club, using a VPN adds additional safeguards from cyberthreats that you may not be aware of.

Related: The Best Credit Cards for Airport Lounge Access

Be Careful Connecting to Open Networks

(Photo by Lisa Weatherbee/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Lisa Weatherbee/The Points Guy)

Not only should you activate a VPN before connecting to an open and unsecured network, but you should think twice before doing so at all. Open networks are easy to spot — they’re the ones without the little lock icon beside them. Most hotels and lounges use open hotspots, so it’s unfair to accuse all open hotspots as being surreptitious, but caution is advised.

Related: Credit Cards That Offer Free Inflight Wi-Fi!

If you’re instructed to connect to an open hotspot in a coworking space, hotel, on an airplane or at an airline lounge, you should notice a pop-up window once connected where you can enter login credentials or accept terms and conditions before getting online.

Err on the side of caution when thinking about connecting to questionable networks. I’d steer clear of these:

  • [Person name]’s iPhone
  • Any open network that looks oddly close to a legitimate network (think: a network that appears to have been created specifically to fool you into connecting)
  • Any network resembling “Free Wi-Fi” or similar

If you accidentally connect to a Wi-Fi network deliberately established to capture internet traffic (say, HamptonInn-FreeWi-Fi instead of the official Hampton Inn option), the attacker would then be a person in the middle and able to access all information flowing out of your computer. Passwords, sensitive files, etc. would all be at risk of being captured.

Disable AirPlay and Network Access When Not in Use

Air France Boeing 777 Business Class laptop working
Getting a bit of work done aboard an Air France 777 from Tahiti to Los Angeles. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

For iPhone and Mac users, visit your system settings and ensure that “Everyone” isn’t checked under AirPlay. You should never leave your phone or laptop open for others to find and attempt to send files to. In fact, we recommend keeping it disabled altogether unless you need to transfer files with someone, and disabling it once again after the transfer is complete.

The same goes for Wi-Fi. If you’re working on an offline project and have no need to be connected, consider disabling all network access while traveling. Not only does this prevent anything from leaving your device unintentionally, but it’ll probably help you focus as well.

Bottom Line

Don’t live in fear of the internet bogeymen, but whether it is triple checking the source of the network, using your smartphone as a hotspot or using a VPN, there are ways to responsibly stay connected while on the go.

Featured photo by the author. 

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