Protecting Data Privacy on Public Wi-Fi¹

Protecting Data Privacy on Public Wi-Fi

The ability to access the Internet via public Wi-Fi access points can be an incredible productivity boost for business owners and travelers, but can also create a security risk for the unprepared user.

Because Wi-Fi sends your data over a radio signal between the hotspot by which you're connected and your laptop or smart phone, it's important to understand that your Wi-Fi signal can be monitored, allowing a hacker to see the contents of your e-mail messages, chat sessions, Web browsing and other potentially sensitive information.

To make it easy for customers to log on with a minimal amount of inconvenience, most public Wi-Fi hotspots offer unsecured connections that anyone can use to reach the Internet. That's fine if all of the users are legitimate, but can create a security problem if a hacker or criminal is using the free connection to intercept other users' traffic and trying to steal financial, business or personal information.

In some examples, hackers have set up false hotspots that are designed to capture user login information. Someone could sit in a public area with a legitimate hotspot and set up another one that broadcasts a wireless identity such as "free public Wi-Fi" and asks users to enter personal information to gain access.

To avoid this threat, try to check for the name of the legitimate network before you log on.

A few key pointers can help you secure your Wi-Fi browsing session and protect your confidential business information:

  • Check your e-mail connection - If you're going to check your e-mail (the most common reason people log on remotely) on a public hotspot, check the address bar to make sure your connection is secure (you'll see https instead of http). While some email programs or webmail providers use secure connections, not all do.
  • Be careful what you access - Public, unsecured Wi-Fi is fine for checking travel information, tomorrow's weather and similar Web sites. To be safe, it's probably not a great idea to conduct online banking or to access your most sensitive business data at a free hotspot.
  • Use a VPN - If your company has installed Virtual Private Network (VPN) software, use it to create a secure 'tunneled' connection between your computer and your company network or the site you're reaching. VPN software encrypts your connection, making it much less likely to be intercepted or abused by an outsider.

By following prudent measures and monitoring your Wi-Fi connection carefully, you can greatly reduce the risk of your information being compromised while you conduct business at a public hotspot.