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4 Ways to Protect Yourself on Free Public Wi-Fi Networks

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Yesterday, we talked about the WordPress unsecured cookies bug that makes it possible for fellow unencrypted Wi-Fi users to copy your cookie and hijack your site. But WordPress isn't the only site that transmits information through insecure channels -- unless you see the "https://" in the URL (or a padlock icon), you're potentially broadcasting your data to your nosy neighbors.

How do you secure your data? After all, at some point, you'll probably want to stop at a Starbucks, or use your local courthouse's free Wi-Fi. There are a few ways to do so without risking your or your client's sensitive data.

1. Use a VPN Service

What is a VPN? A Virtual Private Network is a pipeline that routes your traffic, securely, though a remote server. Companies often use VPNs to allow remote access to their data, but commercial VPN services are also useful for protecting your privacy when using public Internet, as your data is encrypted when transmitted through the VPN.

What's the catch? VPNs are either slow or cost money. PC Magazine did a recent roundup of all of the major free VPN services, any of which should suffice for the occasional check-in with the office. But for regular use, you'll want to invest in a monthly plan, which run less than $10 a month.

2. HTTPS Everywhere

This clever browser extension, a joint project of the Tor Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, forces websites to use a secure connection whenever available. Though not all sites have HTTPS, pretty much any legitimate major site will, including email services and social networks.

3. Hide Your Computer

A hacker can't hack what he can't see, and while clicking "Stealth Mode" on a Mac or disabling network discovery on a PC may not make you completely invisible, the Wi-Fi sniffing hacker nearby is probably going to chase the low-hanging fruit and intercept someone else's data.

If that seems too complicated, at least on a PC, there is a simpler choice: when Windows asks you to identify whether a network is "Public," "Home," or "Work," picking public will automatically kick the security settings up a notch.

Bring Your Own Internet

If this is giving you the heebie jeebies, the simplest solution is to carry your own cellular hotspot. In times past, this would have been an expensive endeavor, but no more: many cell companies allow you to use your phone as a hotspot (for a small monthly fee), while other companies (like FreedomPop) have free or low-cost service once you purchase the modem.

Editor's note, May 31, 2016: This post was first published in May, 2014. It has since been updated.

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