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Almost everyone uses public Wi-Fi, but not many people have a good understanding of just exactly what the risks are...
Almost everyone uses public Wi-Fi, but not many people have a good understanding of just exactly what the risks are. One thing to remember is that some of the risks depend on what you're doing. For example, hopping on the league site to see where your favourite sports team is sitting in the standings is a relatively low-risk use of public Wi-Fi, while using online banking to pay your credit cards is quite the opposite.
Using public Wi-Fi is like anything else: It's a balance of risks and benefits, not all of which are under your control.
The first thing to remember is that public Wi-Fi is just that: public. If you are sitting in a coffee shop you expect that people around you can hear everything you say. Some may even be able to see your screen, but that's a different security issue.
Public Wi-Fi is the same for computers: Every computer on the network can potentially read every packet you send. That means entering passwords and credit card information on public Wi-Fi is about as safe as pulling out your credit card and reading the numbers out loud.
One way to protect your information while using public Wi-Fi is to use the secure versions of websites. That means using https rather than http sites, or looking for the lock in the corner of your address bar.
The advantage here is that it makes it harder for others to intercept traffic from your computer to a website because it's encrypted. It isn't the best solution, but it's much better than relying on the open web.
One danger with public Wi-Fi is that some people might create their own hotspots, and use them to try and draw out personal information such as your credit card number.
Always be careful if public Wi-Fi asks for a credit card before it will let you connect, as it could be someone running a hotspot trying to get your information for his or her own purposes. Never go to a site that seems a little "off" and, when in doubt, check with the staff to make sure you are connected to the right network.
A virtual private network is the safest way to use public Wi-Fi. It creates an encrypted tunnel from your computer to the network server, and then runs all subsequent connections out through the server at the other end.
Originally designed to allow corporate users to connect with head office over secure connections, they have become the go-to method for any user with secure connection needs. Many even block all connections from any other computer on the local network, which is great for your peace of mind.
In the end, while it's never entirely safe to connect to public Wi-Fi, there are definitely safer ways to do it. If you pay attention to what you're doing, and remember where you are, you should be safe enough.