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Back to March 2013 ITS Newsletter

The Hidden Cost of Free - Keeping Yourself Safe When Using Public Wi-Fi

By Ryan Coyle

They say that the best things in life are free: hugs, air, a fall day, the smell of fresh pie, and airport Wi-Fi.  Wait, airport Wi-Fi?  Many businesses such as coffee shops, Panera Breads, and McDonalds offer free Wi-Fi as a way to encourage people to stay in their stores longer and hopefully spend more money.

While I think we’re all in agreement that we like free, sometimes there are things to consider when using these types of services. 

Unsecure wireless networks

The information you send across most free unsecure wireless networks goes through as plain text.  What exactly does that mean?  While I’m guessing, for the most part, criminals aren’t interested in your picture posts of your breakfast that morning or that funny status update about your pet ferret, they are interested in the unencrypted passwords and PINs that can be sent across these networks.   It is exceptionally easy for someone with nefarious goals to sit on an open wireless network and scan the network for interesting traffic. 

What can you do?

So what’s a person to do?  Free Wi-Fi is a great way to save on your data plan assuming that you have a plan that charges by the GB.  It’s also typically much faster than existing 3G network services.  So how do we take advantage of faster, no charge wireless but keep ourselves safe from would-be information thieves?

Here are a few hints to help you keep yourself safer when using free Wi-Fi:

  • When given a choice between free unsecure Wi-Fi and secure Wi-Fi, use the secure Wi-Fi.  Information sent over secure Wi-Fi connections is encrypted and not easily read by scammers.  Secure Wi-Fi will often require a password and possibly a username and can be identified by the padlock on the wireless icon.  Check with the hosts whether you can have access to the secure Wi-Fi.
  • If you have to use an unsecure Wi-Fi try to avoid sending sensitive information at all costs.  This includes online banking transactions, email, personal business or any College business.
  • If you’re in a situation where you need to check a bank balance or use some other sensitive service, such as email, make sure that you’re using an https, or secure website.  Most sites that require some sensitive information traffic will already be configured to use https, but not all.  In your browser, make sure that there is an s at the end of the http and you’ll usually see a padlock in the left corner of the address bar.
  • If all else fails, consider using a VPN service if you must connect to an unsecure Wi-Fi network.  If you’re performing college business and have access to the College VPN, make sure that you’re using that, otherwise there are different services that you can use.  Lifehacker.com has a good list of  Five Best VPN Service Providers.
  • Another option for you, depending on your device, would be to use your existing cell service.  Some data plans allow you to set up your phone or other device as a mobile hotspot.  Check with your carrier to see if this is something you can use.  Data going over the existing cell network is much more protected than that which travels over Wi-Fi networks.  The downside is that it uses  your data plan, but it’s a safer alternative than trying to conduct sensitive transactions over an unsecure Wi-Fi connection.