When you’re a college student, few things are as important as public Wi-Fi.
When you’re searching for a secluded off-campus study spot, the availability of an open Wi-Fi network is a make-or-break issue.
But despite its convenience – and popularity – public Wi-Fi exposes you to a number of risks.
Many times, however, you don’t really have a choice.
Luckily, there are ways to help keep yourself safe, so you can browse without fear.
The Dangers of Public Wi-Fi
The internet has revolutionized the way that we live. Once upon a time, when you went to a cafe, you only went to drink coffee. Now, that cup of joe is usually accompanied by a laptop or smartphone.
And businesses have learned to adapt. A huge number of businesses now offer free Wi-Fi to their clients and customers.
But those free, public Wi-Fi networks carry a number of risks. There is some level of risk even using your own private internet Wi-Fi service in your apartment and the risk increases as the Wi-Fi connections become less private. Joining a password protected Wi-Fi network has a greater risk and increases your need to maintain proper protection on all your devices. When you connect to a Wi-Fi network, other devices on that network might have access to your computer as well. This opens the doors to hackers, leaving your data vulnerable to thieves.
In fact, some hackers set up public networks with the express purpose of stealing users’ data. The option with the greatest amount of risk is an open Wi-Fi network with no password required, be very cautious; this includes strong consideration to go find a safer connection.
But, if you use these tips, you can keep yourself safe.
Just Say “No” to Automatic Connections
After you connect to a Wi-Fi network for the first time, your computer will remember that network. Next time you are within range of that network, your computer will reconnect to it…automatically.
This “automatically connect” setting is usually set to default by most computers. But this might cause your computer to connect to whatever free network it can find, including unsafe rogue networks.
Make sure your computer’s automatic connections setting is turned off before going in search of free Wi-Fi.
Mind the HTTPS
One of the most important pieces of internet security is a website’s SSL certificate.
You’ve probably noticed that website URLs will have a few letters before the www. Usually, this is http:// or https://.
Both are meant to keep visitors to a website secure, but there’s one big difference: HTTP connections are not encrypted. HTTPS connections are encrypted.
If you visit a site on a public Wi-Fi connection and see that it doesn’t have an HTTPS certificate, turn your heels and run.
Turn Off File Sharing
It’s easier than ever to share files between devices. Thanks to AirDrop and Near Share, you can share even huge files to other devices on the same Wi-Fi network with Bluetooth turned on.
If you regularly use file sharing, you might not even realize that you leave it on every day.
But if someone else is within range of your device, this could allow them to share files with you without you even realizing it.
This opens your personal data—your passwords, home address, financial information and more—to theft. But not just that: it could also allow people to send dangerous files to your device.
If you’re a struggling college student, the last thing you need is to lose your laptop to a virus shared over a public network.
Before connecting to a network, make sure that your file sharing apps are turned off.
Turn on Your Firewall and Anti-Malware
The firewall is one of the best defenses against dangerous attacks against your computer.
A firewall acts as a filter between the internet and your computer. If a file or website is flagged as dangerous, the firewall prevents it from reaching your device.
However, firewalls are sometimes a little overzealous. They can prevent you from accessing sites that you do want to access—especially if you use the internet to watch TV and movies or download music.
While you might be okay to turn off your firewall while connected to your home network, using a public connection without a firewall is a bit like skydiving without a parachute.
Before you even search for a Wi-Fi network, make sure that your firewall is armed and operational and that you always have a high-quality anti-malware software updated and running.
Watch What Data You Access
When you use a public network, any information that you touch is vulnerable to attack.
However, if you don’t access that sensitive information, hackers can’t access it either.
Avoid accessing any information that you don’t want to be stolen. Instead of checking your bank account on your laptop over the public Wi-Fi, use your cellular data to check it on your phone.
Stay away from any site that contains PII—personal identifying information. This is things like financial records, social security numbers, home addresses, etc.
Use A VPN
If you’re a college student in the 21st Century, you’re probably already familiar with VPNs, or virtual private networks.
VPNs allow you to hide your IP address and help you browse a public network securely.
When you use the internet, it operates much like a subway station. You get on the train at your computer and get off at the website. However, hackers can sneak onto the train at other stops along the way.
A VPN creates a secure “tunnel” directly from your device to the website. Because there are no other “stops,” no one can sneak onto the train.
This allows you to use the internet with powerful security—even on a public network!
Web Surf’s Up!
Using public Wi-Fi can expose you to cyber threats. But using these tips, you can rest assured that your data is safe.
But if you have a place of your own, you won’t have to rely on public networks as much! Check out our 10 steps to finding great student housing!