Before You Use That Free Wi-Fi…

Thank goodness for free Wi-Fi sites.  I’m sure you find them convenient and sometimes even necessary.  I’m happy to be able to duck into a library or nice coffee shop that displays a free Wi-Fi sign in the window and get some work done while between appointments.  It’s all good,  but like with so many good things,  there can be a downside to free hotspots.   Perils may lurk in the in the Wi-Fi shadows and we are advised to think a minute before we click and connect.

Information transmitted on an inadequately secured network can be intercepted by some nefarious someone who can use readily available software and equipment.   If that’s not scary enough,  hackers have been known to create pirate Wi-Fi sites that appear to be legitimate,  to trick the trusting into connecting and giving the bad guys access to whatever is done online.  

 Yet despite the risks,  it is possible to take advantage of public Wi-Fi,  but taking precautions to protect your data is strongly advised.

I.      Know your hotspot

Hotels are hotspots that typically require a password and offer free Wi-Fi only to registered guests,  thus making hotel Wi-Fi very secure.   Neighborhood coffee shops  and the public library may not be so secure.  You can sometimes check the level of security if there is a terms of service page to read before you connect  (a la Starbucks). 

According to the industry group Wi-Fi Alliance,  only use hot-spots that provide security technology known as W-Fi Protected Access 2  (WPA2),  which offers more security than the earlier systems WPA and Wired Equivalent Privacy  (WEP).   Look for this info on the terms of service page before you decide to transmit any sensitive data that hackers may seek.  The ultimate security precaution is to refrain from doing any online banking or credit card transactions on public Wi-Fi.

II.    Encrypt the data

On the other hand,   basically all websites that handle sensitive info,  such as banks,  brokerage houses and e-commerce sites,  use encryption technology known as Secure Sockets Layer  (SSL) that scrambles any data that is entered.   You’ll know that SSL is in effect when the web address starts with  “https”.   Several email and social media sites,  notably Gmail,  Hotmail and Facebook,  use SSL to keep private communication safe from eavesdroppers.  Facebook,  however,  requires that users activate the SSL.   To do so,  go first to Account Settings,   click Security,  then enable Secure Browsing.

III.   Virtual Private Network

Virtual Private Network  (VPN)  software is a must for those who regularly transmit sensitive data over public Wi-Fi networks.  VPN software creates an  “encrypted tunnel”  through which your data travels as it sails through the world wide web.  Many large corporations have their own SSL networks in place for their employees,  but Freelancers and other small business operators can get some cover as well.  

Anonymizer Universal  is compatible with Windows,  Mac,  iPad and iPhone and costs $80.00/year.  PrivateWiFi  supports Windows and Mac and is available at $10/month or annually at $85.00.   VPN4ALL  is compatible with Windows,  Windows Mobile,  Mac,  Android,  iPad and iPhone for $6.00 – $20.00/month,  depending on the operating system you run and the amount of data you’ll transmit.

OpenVPN Technologies actually developed the open-source technology that is used by several software companies that offer SSL.  Private Tunnel is their VPN service and it caters specifically to small business.  Private Tunnel supports Windows and Mac and costs $12.00 – $50.00/year,  depending on the amount of data transmitted.

Finally,  it’s possible to avoid Wi-Fi networks altogether and connect to the internet through a wireless carrier.   For this totally mobile service you will likely pay $50.00 – $60.00 /month.  Wireless carriers use encryption when transferring data.  For your mobile device you’ll probably need a large or unlimited GB plan.  Laptops will require a special device that plugs into a port like a flash drive.

Thanks for reading,



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