By Paul D Kennedy

Nowadays you find Wi-Fi networks you can access easily everywhere… in coffee shops, restaurants and hotels, shopping malls, even out in the open street in major city centres.

This is great. It means that you can go online from your mobile phone, smartphone, tablet or laptop, indeed any portable device, in most places at any time at all.

The problem, as ever with the internet, is security.

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi (or WiFi) is a local area wireless technology that allows electronic devices to connect to each other. The term is not an abbreviation. It was invented as a play on the word Hi-Fi and is just a fancy name for a wireless local area network (WLAN).

Many devices, such as personal computers, video-game consoles, smartphones, digital cameras, tablets and digital audio players, can be connected using Wi-Fi. They link to a network (such as the internet) via a wireless network access point known as a hotspot.

Walls block the radio waves used by this technology. So indoors, the range is limited to about 20 meters (66 feet). Outdoors, however multiple overlapping access points enable many square kilometres to be covered by a single public Wi-Fi network.

Security problems with Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi can be less secure than wired connections. This is simply because an intruder does not need a physical connection.

Most of us are pretty good at protecting our PCs at home, using firewalls to prevent cyber-criminals from accessing our information and anti-virus software to reduce our chances of becoming infected with a computer virus or other malware.

The same threats are present when you access the internet using a public Wi-Fi network. The added problem is that you can never be sure whether a particular network or hotspot is secure.

Most public Wi-Fi networks do not use encryption, a form of security in which the information you send is encoded so it cannot be read by a third party.

In addition, you don’t even need a password to get connected to most public networks, which means that they are open to anyone in the area including you friendly local cyber-thief.

Logging into your bank account or other personal account over an unsecured network can be particularly dangerous as your log-in details could easily be read by a hacker, who will then be in a position to clean out your bank account or impersonate you using your personal details.

Protection on a public Wi-Fi network

As you can see, using public Wi-Fi networks can be quite risky. However, you can make yourself relatively secure if you follow these seven tips:

[1] Whatever device you use to access the internet, check that your anti-virus and anti-malware software is up to date and turned on.

[2] To make it more difficult for an attacker to gain access, make sure your firewall is turned on.

[3] Turn off sharing when you are on a public network. This will keep others from accessing your computer and files. You can turn it off in the Control Panel (Windows) or System preferences (Mac OS X).

[4] Avoid logging on to banking and shopping sites where, to do so, you have to enter personal and financial information. You should only do online banking or shopping over a trusted connection, such as a home network you know is protected.

[5] Go to sites with URLs that begin with “https” instead of “http”, as “https” sites use encryption to protect the information you send.

[6] Avoid automatically connecting to hotspots. Doing so will reduce your chances of being connected to a malicious hotspot set up to steal information. As before, you can do this from the Control Panel (Windows) or System preferences (Mac OS X).

[7] If you use public Wi-Fi a lot, a good idea would be to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is like a private network which you can access from anywhere. However you need to subscribe to a VPN service for which there is a monthly fee. However a VPN is a smart choice for businesses, large and small.

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