You may not know it, but if you’re using public Wi-Fi, you’re putting you and your data at risk. Today we want to teach you more about this threat and how to guard against it.
A Brief on Basic Network Types
First, we’re going to start by briefing you on various network types and what they usually mean for your safety.
- Your home network is, well, your home network. These typically comprise of a few hardwired Ethernet cable connections, as well as a password-secured wireless router. As long as this router uses a recent standard of encryption and a strong password, you should generally be pretty safe here.
- A business network is usually a combination of extensive hard-wired and wireless rollouts, depending on the size of the building. These are usually tightly controlled by the IT experts responsible for their rollout and maintenance, and should have good data security in general. However, your browsing may be monitored or restricted on these networks.
- Public wired networks are similar to business networks and often used in schools and libraries. These are generally less secure and less moderated, however, leaving them more prone to abuse and malware infection. In the case of a school network, your browsing will almost certainly be monitored or restricted.
- Finally, we come to a public wireless network. The remainder of this article will largely be dedicated to secure usage of this type of network. However, the security tips we give for protecting your privacy on public Wi-Fi are also applicable to other networks, since entities like the ISP or network admins can still find a way to access your data there.
A public wireless network is one of the most dangerous places to get online. Unsecured Wi-Fi means no encryption, and no encryption means that your data is often transferred without any kind of protection through the air. Through a process called packet sniffing, your unsecured data can be stolen by malicious third parties. In fact, unsecured Wi-Fi access points can sometimes be a honeypot disguised as a public Wi-Fi hotspot, gaining access to your information even more easily in the process.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are countermeasures you can take, and we’ll walk you through them.
What Can You Do to Protect Your Privacy on Public Wi-Fi?
Good Browsing Practices
Adhering to safe browsing practices will take you a long way. The first thing you’ll want to do is make sure that you’re using an up-to-date browser that supports HTTPS and SSL. Sites that support these technologies will encrypt all the information that passes through them, including your passwords and your personal information. This will prevent any snooping third parties from grabbing your passwords in plain text through packet sniffing.
Secondly, avoid any kind of shady sites or browsing behavior. This is generally applicable and doesn’t apply solely to public Wi-Fi, but part of protecting your privacy also entails not getting caught up in an endless loop of malicious advertising or getting your PC infected. Be sure to install an adblocker and a decent antivirus to help prevent these issues as well.
Privacy-Oriented Browser Extensions
Next up, consider having some privacy extensions on hand. One great extension you can use is HTTPS Everywhere, which will request sites utilize HTTPS whenever possible by default. It won’t work for every site, but it should work for most any site you’re using that deals with your personal information.
If you want to extend your privacy to advertisers and other third parties, consider also installing Privacy Badger alongside the other extensions we’ve recommended.
Use a VPN!
We’ve given you some free and easy solutions, but the most effective solution for ensuring your safety on public Wi-Fi is using a VPN. We’ll dive into how you can do that below.
Recommended VPNs for Privacy on Public Wi-Fi
We have a few recommendations here, but you might notice something: neither of these options are free. They aren’t super cheap, either. Why is this?
Well, there’s really only one way to say this: free VPNs suck.
More than that, free VPNs are arguably even more dangerous than just using public Wi-Fi, because many free VPNs will sell off your data and might not even bother to anonymize your traffic. Trusting in the wrong VPN provider essentially has the same effect as routing all of your data into a den of thieves who will sell your information to make their money off of you. This is how “free VPNs” pay for themselves.
In all fairness, there are some low-cost VPNs that may still prove effective at maintaining your safety on public Wi-Fi. However, we’re going to focus on covering only our most highly recommended options for privacy and security on public Wi-Fi: ExpressVPN and NordVPN.
- Monthly Pricing: $6,67/mo with our exclusive deal
- Supported Platforms: Windows RT, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10; Mac OS X, iOS, Linux, Android
ExpressVPN is one of the best VPNs out there. It supports a ton of different devices, protocols and payment methods. Depending on the day and other factors, it may even be the fastest VPN service you can get right now.
But, perhaps most importantly to the scope of this article, ExpressVPN has a feature called Network Lock. If you ever lose connection to your VPN server, your computer will typically try to go ahead and switch over to the public internet that everyone else on your Wi-Fi is using. This can cause DNS leaks, which allow your ISP or any snoopers on the network to view your DNS requests until you reinstate your VPN’s protection.
With Network Lock, this isn’t a concern. If you ever lose connection to your VPN, it will stop all internet traffic to prevent any leaks. You can use this time to close or stop any processes you have open, and then retry your connection to the VPN servers.
In addition to being blazing fast and equipped to prevent any leaks whatsoever while on any network (public Wi-Fi included), ExpressVPN also includes a feature that most VPNs don’t: the ability to “spoof” Netflix and access other countries’ Netflix catalogs. Most VPNs don’t work with Netflix at all, but this one does, so no functionality lost!
- Monthly Pricing: $2.75/mo with our special deal
- Supported Platforms: Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10; Max OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, Chrome OS, Windows Phone
NordVPN is another highly popular VPN. A glance at the pricing and supported platforms will tell you that this is one of ExpressVPN’s strongest competitors. So what sets it apart? NordVPN boasts three distinct advantages:
- NordVPN isn’t based in the United States. This means there is no mandatory logging, so no matter what you do on their VPN, nobody and no government will ever be able to find out unless you tell them or your system itself is compromised. This is a big selling point for privacy nuts everywhere.
- NordVPN also offers a Double VPN feature. If you want to be really, really safe on a public Wi-Fi network, the Double VPN feature routes your traffic through two VPN servers instead of just one. This makes it pretty much impossible to track, detect or decipher any of your private information, though it’s not strictly necessary and will be slower than just using the VPN normally.
- NordVPN can also be configured to prevent a leak in case of a disconnect from the VPN server. This is key for preventing any of your important information from getting leaked out onto a public Wi-Fi network.
Like ExpressVPN, NordVPN also supports Netflix spoofing. This means, yes, you can use any country’s Netflix with the help of this VPN! No need to worry about your Netflix being blocked while you have this active, which is a real issue you encounter with other VPNs. While great, however, NordVPN isn’t our winner. It has a few server connection issues and its interface is not the most user friendly we’ve ever used, which docks it a point or two versus ExpressVPN. If the few drawbacks aren’t enough to deter you, NordVPN offers a feature-rich and highly secure experience at a lower price than ExpressVPN.
Using These VPNs
Once you install your VPN and get it running, the program should do the rest for you. To check if your VPN is working properly after you’ve installed it, use this tool. If your IP address and location isn’t being revealed, your VPN is doing its job and you are now safe.
And that’s all! We hope that this article helped you get yourself secured on public Wi-Fi. If it didn’t, or if you have any questions, feel free to comment below and let us know. We’re eager to make sure that you’re protected.