How to protect your personal data when surfing from public Wi-Fi

Using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) is the best way to protect your data when surfing public wireless networks

When you're connected from the Wi-Fi network of a hotel or restaurant you take, perhaps, for granted that the network is secure. That's not always the case. So when in doubt, avoid making financial transactions, checking email and browsing confidential sites. But there is a way to do it securely.

A public Wi-Fi network doesn't offer encryption for users using the same password and the same hotspot. Your signals, moreover, are transmitted in close proximity. Even an unskilled hacker is able to intercept the signal using a fake hotspot or ad hoc tools. The first goal of the attacker on duty is to get into the same network as the potential victim, and he can do it because he has the password. It doesn't matter if the credentials are given to you at the cashier or reception desk, or printed out at the time: once this data is public, your security is compromised. That's why you should never let your guard down and follow these four tips we offer.

Use a VPN service

The best way to protect your traffic while using a public Wi-Fi is to use a virtual private network (VPN). When you are connected, all Internet traffic is sent from your computer through an encrypted "tunnel" to the provider's endpoint. The traffic is protected from local eavesdropping on the public Wi-Fi network. These public VPN services typically cost between $5 and $20 per month (about the same in euros at today's exchange rate). Then there is also software available on cell phones that allows a VPN to start automatically when you connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The downside of using a VPN is that it may slow down your connection speed by 25/50%.

The security of encryption

If you don't have a VPN service, make sure that whenever you connect to a website via a public Wi-Fi network, the session is encrypted. In the URL field, you should see an "HTTPS" and not "HTTP". Be careful that your entire session remains secure throughout your browsing. Some sites use encryption only at login time and then leave you at the mercy of a normal HTTP connection which will make you potentially vulnerable to hijacking attacks. Other sites, on the other hand, guarantee you the security of an entire session under the protection of encryption.

File transfer and check email

Never perform a file transfer when connected to public Wi-Fi unless a VPN connection is running. For email client programs, also make sure that Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is enabled for connections to Imap, Pop3 and Smtp servers.

Beware of the hotspot name

A very common attack used by hackers is to create a public Wi-Fi hotspot right next to another public Wi-Fi. It will, in all likelihood, have a name similar to the legitimate one. If you fall for the trick, all of your browsing activity will be routed through the cyber criminal's network which allows him to control the traffic. To avoid this "deception", always verify the exact name of the SSID of the hotspot at your hotel, store or any company that is supposed to offer you this service. If you ever see two access points with the same name, let the wireless service provider know immediately.