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Public WiFi: What Is It and Is It Safe To Use?

The Early History of WiFi

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) developed the original wireless specification known as 802.11. It was released in 1997 and made available to consumers. In 1998 a company called MobileStar coined the term “hotspot,” and was the first to offer wifi available in airports, hotels and coffee shops. According to GetVoip, there were an estimated 70,000,000 million hotspots in 2015. Hotspots are physical areas where users can access the internet as a wireless service. This access is made available by companies that provide the routers and wireless networks to make this service available to the public.

The Availability of Public WiFi

With so many hotspots out there, it’s easy to stay connected when traveling for work or pleasure. The question is how secure your data is when you access public WiFi.

WiFi is available for free at most airports, airport lounges, and during flights – though some airlines will charge for in-flight WiFi. Some airports offer access to WiFi for free for a limited amount of time. After that time, you may be invited to sign up for paid access through a service like Boingo. Nowadays, it’s unusual to visit coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and libraries that don’t offer WiFi.

Some US cities like New York and San Francisco are early adopters, offering free WiFi access in various locations citywide. If you’re on a limited data plan, this type of WiFi access can be a lifesaver, especially if you’re traveling and need to verify how to get to your hotel or office meeting.

The Security Risks of Public WiFi

Verify Your Wireless Network Before Connecting

Mobile Device Security Recommendations When Traveling for Work or PleasureWith free public WiFi access so common, so is the risk to your data security once connected. When connecting to public WiFi, you want to be sure you’re connecting to a legitimate hotspot. Look for signage in your area that confirms the name of the network you should connect to or ask. The name of the wireless network is also known as SSID (Service Set Identifier), same as the SSID you set up at home. Signage will also confirm what passcode you should use. Some public WiFi networks don’t require a password and are completely open information you send over the internet is completely unprotected. It’s easy for hackers to track activity, and capture personal information including passwords you use.

Use Websites That Are Encrypted

Regardless of the type of network you are on, you should access websites that use HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). This means information you send between your device and the website is encrypted and not exposed, from the start to end of your online session. This is critical when you want to access financial information or personal data whether you’re checking the status of your health plan, online banking or payment systems like PayPal. The Federal Trade Commission recommends installing plugins such as Force-TLSj or HTTPS-Everywhere (free from Firefox) to force some websites to use encryption.

Protect Yourself With a VPN

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are the best way to protect your data when you need to access public WiFi networks. It used to be companies that used VPN services the most, but with the growth of mobile devices and public networks, more and more consumers are signing up for this service.

VPNs create an encrypted tunnel between the device you’re using and their VPN server. That server in turn creates a connection with the public WiFi service you want to connect to. That means the VPN is encrypting your data before it passes it through their server to the public network. This is especially valuable if you’re connecting to an unprotected public network. Pubic WiFi networks that use passwords can be hacked, so a VPN provides a layer of protection to mitigate your risks.

Ask Bennett Office Technologies for a Free Assessment!

Have questions about VPNs? If you need help establishing VPN network at your office, or for personal use, contact Bennett Office Technologies. We treat our clients as partners and treat your data security and privacy needs as if it were ours.

For assistance planning your IT needs complete our Technology Assessment form and we’ll contact you to do a free assessment.

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