Free Wi-Fi while you're waiting for your flight? Sounds like a great way to save money, and kudos to Google for offering it at many U.S. airports during the holidays. Unfortunately, Google's generosity may also lure identity thieves and nefarious hackers to the nation's terminals to prey on clueless travelers.
Public hotspots, which by nature are open and unencrypted, are notoriously insecure. Information you transmit via laptop, smartphone, or gaming device may very well fall into the wrong hands. There are ways to stay safe, however. We asked Edgar Figueroa, executive director of industry trade group the Wi-Fi Alliance, for some hotspot safety tips. They are:
1) Configure your Wi-Fi device to not automatically connect to an open network without your approval. By doing so, you'll be aware when you're connecting to an open Wi-Fi hotspot. "Many devices either come out of the box or are later configured to automatically accept any available Wi-Fi connection," Figueroa says. Auto-configuration is most popular on handsets and some consumer electronics products like gaming devices.
2) If there's a storage device or another PC on your home network, you may have sharing enabled on the laptop you've brought to the airport. "When you're connecting to a public hotspot, make sure that you disable sharing," says Figueroa.
3) If you're conducting business or sharing sensitive information, it's best to use a virtual private network (VPN), which creates an encrypted, private link across a public network.
4) Use a personal firewall, either the one that came with your Mac or Windows PC, or a third-party app from a reputable security vendor like Symantec. Firewalls come with a range of configurations. "You can configure a firewall that is somewhat impermeable, and then there are times you can have it pretty open," Figueroa says. "At a minimum, you'll want to know when an incoming connection is attempting to gain access to your system."
5) Should you pay bills and shop online at a hotspot? Well, it's probably not the smartest idea. If you must, however, "it would be best to do these types of transactions over a VPN connection," Figueroa says. At the very least, use a hotspot that has WPA2 security. Not every public hotspot offers WPA2, though.
For more safety tips, check out the Wi-Fi Alliance's security page.