We offer Public Wireless Internet Access here at the library. We offer no technical support to assist you on this service.
People generally like privacy, and hiding behind a laptop helps us forget that we're surrounded by strangers. However, it's important to remember that you're sharing an Internet connection with other people. Think of it as though you are making a phone call in public. If you wouldn't say something personal and private with people listening, don't say it with your laptop, tablet or smartphone. Would you give a stranger your credit card or banking information? Don't do it in a public network. Even if there's a WiFi password, public WiFi can't keep other laptops from eavesdropping on your communication.
Is Your Firewall and Antivirus Software Updated?
Bathrobe and slippers are fine for home, but you have to get dressed to go out in public. For your computer, that means making sure your laptop has a firewall and antivirus software and that you have updated your security signatures on your home or office network before going out. It won't protect you from every attack, but it will help protect you from automated worms and viruses that use the intimate nature of public WiFi to spread locally from computer to computer.
Look for the Lock
Most people know this by now, but an encrypted Web page gives you better protection than a nonencrypted Web page. It's not as safe as a VPN, but it's better than nothing. Just remember that there are ways for the "bad guys" to try to confuse your browser, and show you a fake Website that looks like a real one. While this problem isn't isolated to public WiFi, it's an environment that makes it easier to lead your browser astray.
Patch before you Go
Patching and updating software on a regular basis is an essential security practice, especially when it comes to Wi-Fi.
You should keep your web browser, software and antivirus solution up-to-date to fix bugs, while an up-to-date antivirus engine will scan, detect and remove the latest threats.
Attackers will sometimes take advantage of poor patching by tricking unsuspecting users into downloading something they believe to be a software update. However, they will quickly realise that their machine has been infected with malware instead.
Don't Share Accidentally
Part of the power of computers in an office is their ability to interconnect and that turns into a big weakness in a public environment. Microsoft added Network Location Awareness to Windows Firewall in Vista, which means that when you connect to a network, Windows will ask you whether it's work, home or public. While choosing "public" should stop most information leaking from your PC to everyone around you, be aware that you may also have other programs running that like to share your MP3 library, home movies, tax returns and so on.
Enable two-factor authentication where possible. 2FA is increasingly seen as the future of authentication and it is wise for anyone using a hotspot. This per-website step adds an extra layer of protection for public password-sniffing hackers to try and overcome.
If you travel a lot and don’t have a cellular dongle but still need connectivity, consider a virtual private network (VPN). This is a safe way of surfing the web in an encrypted manner. VPN solutions provide encryption and security across public networks, as well as masking your IP address so that opportunities for phishing are dramatically reduced.
A Little Paranoia Can Prevent a Lot of Problems
Remember when using public WiFi that you're not just on the Internet, you're on a network with a bunch of strange computers, some of which have viruses, and some of which may be specifically trying to attack you. If anything looks out of place, such as warnings about Website certificates, log-in fields in a different location, unexpected requests for personal information or credit card numbers, stop what you're doing and put your computer away. It's probably not anything to worry about, but a little paranoia now can save you a lot of problems later.