How do you know if a wireless hotspot is secure?

The widespread availability and convenience of public wireless networks allows us to be online as much as possible. Wi-Fi hotspots can be found almost anywhere – in airports, in restaurants, in coffee shops, bars – unless you’re in the middle of nowhere with not a soul in sight.

While wireless public networks allow us to be online when and where we want to, they are often not secure. Few realize that they are on a shared network with strangers and not everyone using that network is online to check their email or Facebook.

The bad guys are interested in the sensitive data, such as passwords and financial transactions, being sent over the Internet. Public networks are vulnerable to attack and there are numerous hacking programs that are easily downloaded from the web.

The key to protecting your information online is to ensure that the data you are sending over the internet is encrypted. Encryption scrambles the information into a code so that it is not accessible by others.

It is strongly recommended that you either use a website that is encrypted or you use a secure wireless network. A secure website only encrypts the information that you send to and from that site, while a secure network encrypts all the information that you send while you are connected.

How do you know if a hotspot is secure? If you are not required to enter a password to connect to the hotspot, then it is not secure. Also, if you are asked to enter a password through your browser for access, or it asks for a WEP password, it is best to consider that hotspot as unsecured.

If, however, you are asked to enter a WPA password, or WPA2 (which is the most secure), then you can use that hotspot with a good level of confidence.

OnGuard Online, maintained by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US, is a very good source of information and worth visiting if you want more detailed information on how to protect your information and improve security on your devices.

If you use public wireless networks on a regular basis, here are a few tips that will help to keep your information safe from prying eyes:

  • Use websites that are fully encrypted. Check the website address and make sure that the site is using ‘https’ and a ‘lock’ icon can be seen at the top or bottom of the page.
  • Avoid logging on to websites that are not secure and make sure that you log out when you’re finished using an account. Do not simply close the page.
  • Use strong passwords and use a different password for each account you have. If one of your passwords is compromised and you use that for various accounts, you risk giving someone access to more than one account.
  • Make sure you’re antivirus software is up-to-date with the latest definitions and you have a firewall (providing inbound and outbound protection) and anti-spyware installed.
  • Only access sensitive information, such as online banking portals, from a public network if absolutely necessary. If you need to connect to the office or your home PC, use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) when connected to an unsecured hotspot.
  • Always look for a hotspot that is password protected using WPA or WPA2.
  • Hide your files. Always turn off file-sharing when using an unsecure public network.

On a final note, if you are accessing confidential information or accessing personal sites or documents bear in mind that you’re not at home but in a public place. You never know who may be looking over your shoulder.

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David Kelleher is Communications and Research Analyst at GFI Software.