Don’t Surf Naked: A Guide to Using Public Wi-fi

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Free Wi-fi is awesome, plain and simple. More and more cities are installing it, allowing their citizens to access the web at the park or local pool. It is truly a great and wonderful thing. Of course, we all know where it started… the coffee shop. There’s nothing better then wandering into your favorite coffee shop, scoring a latte, sitting down with your laptop, and freely surfing the net.

However, did you ever consider that such a simple action might put you at risk?

Take a look at the news. It seems like every couple weeks or so there is an announcement of another major security breach in the form of a network hack (remember the recently exposed Ashley Madison website?).

That’s pretty frightening stuff when it happens to corporations that have millions invested in online security, and those are closed private networks. Your local coffee shop is a public network, meaning it can open you up for identity theft pretty easily if you are not careful.

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The Dangers of Public Wi-fi
Remember, public networks have no requirements for users to join. You know how this works. Simply pop open your laptop or tablet, and wait for the open network icons to appear. Once you see a strong signal, access the network and start surfing. It only takes a few seconds to do.

There’s only one problem with that. If it is so easy for you to access the network, that means it is easy for a hacker to join too. All a good hacker needs is a long-range parabolic antenna and packet sniffer. With those two things he can get right to work, stealing information from your computer.

This is possible because there is no password involved. You are surfing “naked.” On your home network, you probably have it encrypted to a degree. It’s not foolproof, but it’s kind of like a thief searching a neighborhood for an unlocked door. The password would require more time to crack so a hacker will usually move on to the next network. This makes coffee shops, restaurants, hotels, and public access Wi-fi ripe for the picking.

Staying Safe on Public Networks
Fortunately, there are ways to minimize this threat. Take a look at the guide below for tips on using public access networks. Putting these tips to use will help keep your information safe. 

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1. Turn on your firewall. It should go without saying, but I have been guilty of this too. You get used to surfing the Internet at home. Having all your network protections in place makes you feel like the firewall is just a speed bump so you turn it off to increase speed and performance. However, in a public network situation, your firewall could literally be the difference between you surfing the net anonymously, or having the guy two tables over log your every keystroke. Turn it on, and adjust the settings from there if need be.

2. No Sharing! Make sure that you turn off the sharing feature on your device when you are using a public network. At home, sharing is okay. Most people want access to pictures, movies, and things like that. However, in public you need to make sure that you turn the sharing feature off. Here is how you do it.

For Windows go to:
Network and Sharing Center > Advanced sharing settings

From there, turn off file and printer sharing for sure, and also network discovery and public folder options.

For Mac with OS X do the following:

Navigate to system preferences>Sharing

Make sure all the boxes are unchecked. Also, make sure that network discovery is off. It should be found in the same location.

3. Watch your address bar. Make sure that the address of the site you are visiting has HTTPS versus HTTP in the address bar. The HTTPS exchanges information between you and the site server in a secure, encrypted fashion. HTTP websites simply exchange text. Any hacker with a “particular set of skills,” and a persistent persuasion, can sniff you out.

4. Use a VPN. VPN stands for virtual private network and is perhaps the best way to surf anonymously. There are several different services available, but one of the best is Cyber Ghost. The best part about it?It’s free! Once installed, simply make it active whenever you find yourself on a public network. You will be able to surf in a much safer manner. StackSocial is running a deal right now on TigerVPN you should check out.

5. Kill your Wi-fi. If you’re in a public network environment, and have your laptop with you, make sure your Wi-fi is off if you’re not using it. Even though you’re not connected to a network, it is fairly easy for someone to locate you as a potential target. Anyone who is a pro hacker could access your computer even if you aren’t on the network. Therefore, it’s best to play it safe and keep it turned off.

Keeping these tips in mind will keep your information safe the next time you decide to enjoy a latte and catch up on the news. With cyber security threats at an all-time high, it’s best to keep yourself informed and know what your options are. Using the tips above puts you in a proactive frame of mind. If there seems to be a network anomaly, you’re much more likely to catch it if you are used to being defensive.

The bottom line is, you should never surf public networks “naked.” Use these tips to keep your information safe.

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