As a general rule, it's best to never use free WiFi. This is because free WiFi networks are less secure than your private home network. Essentially anyone can connect to a free WiFi network, which includes hackers that may try to snoop on your activities and steal your information.
Unfortunately, sometimes you may need to access the Internet in a public place and have no other option than to use free WiFi. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to keep yourself safe even on public networks.
Some Free WiFi Networks Are Better Than Others
McDonald's free WiFi and other networks at chain businesses like Starbucks are relatively more secure than other random public networks that you might find on a street corner. Business networks are limited, generally, to customers inside the store. This limits the number of potential hackers that can get to your information.
So when you're traveling, try to stick to the well-known networks and avoid any networks you're unfamiliar with. A word of caution, though - any public network is vulnerable to hacking.
Don't Give A Free WiFi Network Personal Information
Some networks require you to provide an email address or phone number in order to connect to the Internet. Be wary of this - most of the time, it's for marketing purposes. For example, Starbucks might want your information so they can track you across multiple Starbucks WiFi networks.
However, if it's an unknown network, they are probably just after your personal information for illegal purposes. Again, refer to the first tip in this article. Steer clear of unknown networks and try to severely limit your use of free WiFi in general.
Don't Use Free WiFi Sites That Require Passwords
If you have to use free WiFi, stick to general browsing. Don't enter any of your passwords to access online accounts, especially banking or other sensitive accounts.
Make Sure To Stay With HTTPS
When browsing, always make sure the website you're visiting is through the encrypted HTTPS connection. When you use HTTPS, the data that travels between you and the website's server is encrypted, meaning it can't be read by potential hackers.
Don't Allow File Sharing
When using a public network, always disallow file-sharing of any type. On a Mac, this means turning off file sharing through the AirDrop feature. On a PC, this means turning off all Sharing in the Network and Sharing Center. If you don't do this, your computer will be discoverable by anyone on the same network. The wrong person could send you malicious files.
Update Your Operating System
Make sure to stay up to date with your operating system. Any time a new patch or update comes to your device, make sure to download it as it usually contains important security updates that patch any discovered vulnerabilities.
Use A VPN
The best option for staying safe is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN). It connects your device to a secure server and encrypts all of your data. This is the most expensive option, but it's definitely the most secure. If you don't want to pay for a VPN, follow the above advice, and use caution when using free WiFi.
As previously stated, the best way to keep yourself safe is to avoid free WiFi at all costs, and one of the reasons to use a VPN. If possible, use your mobile phone's hotspot instead if you absolutely have to connect to the Internet.
It is a good idea to be aware of wireless security, whether you are setting up your own or accessing public WiFi. With that said it is also a great tactic to do a privacy checkup as you access the web.