Protecting Yourself on a Wi-Fi Network

There’s no doubt that Wi-Fi technology can be considered a great convenience. It allows us to do pretty much anything we can do while plugged into a wired network at home, work, or school. Have you ever wondered, though, just how secure that network may be? If you haven’t, you probably should, or at least be aware of some things you can do to help protect yourself while connected to a Wi-Fi network.

Protect yourself, by protecting your computer
Whenever you’re connected to a network (wired or Wi-Fi) it’s always a good idea to run an antivirus program and keep its virus definitions up-to-date. Installing a personal firewall is also well advised. Personal firewalls help keep your computer from making connections with other computers and devices that you may not be aware of.

Be aware of the Wi-Fi network type
Many Wi-Fi networks are “open” meaning anyone with a Wi-Fi enabled device can connect to the network. These networks typically are found in public places such as parks, coffee shops, and restaurants, etc. However, these types of networks are the least secure since they offer no encryption between your device and the access point you’re connecting to. How can you tell? When you’re viewing you’re available networks, you’ll usually see the “Security Type” or “Encryption” method listed in its information. If you see “Open” or “Unsecured” you’ll know that this is an unsecured network, but if you see “WEP” or “WPA” (1 or 2 or just WPA) that indicates a secured network.
Security enabled networks such as WEP or WPA usually both require some sort of password or “key” that needs to be entered in when making the initial connection. A word of caution, while WEP secured networks offer a basic level of security they can sometimes be easily be hacked. They tend to be the most common type of secured network in public places since most devices are easily supported. WPA secured networks offer a higher level of security, but they are not as common in public places. In either case, the encryption only exists between your device and the access point you’re connected to; preventing any Wi-Fi network eavesdroppers from being able to read the data on the Wi-Fi network in plain text.
Here are some other tips to consider about the Wi-Fi networks:

•Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you’re paying for the Wi-Fi access that its link is any more secure than a free one unless you can verify the security type in your network connections.

•Be wary of free Wi-Fi networks when you know you’re in a place that charges for access. Many times hackers will setup free, open Wi-Fi networks near places that charge for access with the express purpose of either downloading malware onto your computer, or harvesting your personal information from data you transmit over their network.

•Make sure you’re connecting to the appropriate network. Each Wi-Fi network, in a particular area, has a unique network name or “SSID”. Sometimes hackers will setup networks with names that resemble the network you’re actually trying to connect to, example “CoffeeNet” instead of “Coffeenet”.

Determine if your online activities are being protected
Even if the Wi-Fi network you’re connected to is not secured, there are still ways to protect you and your data from malicious parties. If you’re using a web browser, the browser will tell you if the site you’re visiting is using a secure connection or not; look for “https” in the address bar – this indicates that you’re data is being encrypted all the way from your device to the web server that you’re visiting. Be careful, some sites will encrypt the login process, but the rest of your session will revert back to standard “http” which sends information in clear text. Extra care should be taken if the site doesn’t encrypt the login process; if your Wi-Fi network type is unsecured, a hacker could easily gain access to your username and password without you even knowing. If you’re connecting to work, use your company’s VPN (Virtual Private Network) to make sure you’re connection is secured.
Besides the technical methods mentioned above, it’s always a good idea to use common sense when using Wi-Fi networks. In general, using strong, unique passwords for your online accounts (and by unique password I mean a different password for every account) helps increase your level of security. Not only are your passwords more difficult for hackers to guess, if somehow the information for one of your online accounts is compromised, the rest of your online accounts aren’t vulnerable as well. If you’re unsure of the situation, pretend someone is looking over your shoulder and then ask yourself if you’d still continue.

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