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Ensure The Public Wi-Fi You're On—Or Providing—Is Safe

By Amy Beth Miller for America's Backbone Weekly
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A quarter of Americans 18 and older access a free public Wi-Fi connection at least weekly, and more than a third do so every month, according to a recent AARP survey. Nearly a quarter of those who use free public Wi-Fi say they recognize those connections aren't safe.

That's an understatement. Fast Company quips, "Public Wi-Fi networks are the public toilets of the Internet—conveniently located, but likely to cause infections."

It's much easier for hackers to worm their way into passwords and other valuable data through a public, unsecured connection.

If you want to offer customers free Wi-Fi on your premises, PCWorld and others recommend:

  • Separate access. Don't give people on your public Wi-Fi the ability to access your business computers. Use available hardware and/or software options to separate the two into a public and private network.
  • Add encryption. Use at least WPA2, the most recent version of Wireless Protected Access security.
  • Specify the name. Tell users exactly which network to use, so they don't login to a network with a name designed to fool them. Hackers often set up networks with names sounding like they belong to a business, such as "NameOfYourBusiness Guest."

Also consider restricting access to some types of websites, and requiring users to agree to your terms of service. You'll also want to determine the scope of your Wi-Fi area's coverage and ensure your data plan can cover the increased usage.

Protect Your Data When You Use Wi-Fi

When you are using a public Wi-Fi hotspot, take these precautions:

  • Adjust settings for safety. Use your computer's built-in features to block inappropriate access from outsiders. CNET provides instructions for turning off file sharing and activating firewalls on Windows and OS X operating systems. Remember to turn off your Wi-Fi connection when not in use, and don't allow your device to automatically connect to a wireless network unless it's a trusted network.
  • Look for the lock. The lock icon to the left or right of a website address in your browser indicates a level of safety. Clicking on the lock provides information that varies by browser and site but may include whether a third party has verified the site and whether the connection is encrypted. For example, Google Chrome color-codes its lock symbols. If the website you are using has "https" in the address, it is encrypting data, but a site that has only "http" is vulnerable to snooping.
  • Don't download in public. Update your software only when you can be confident your connection is secure. In one scam dubbed "Darkhotel," researchers from cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Lab found senior executives unknowingly downloaded spyware when they checked into luxury hotels, signed on to the Wi-Fi network, and downloaded what they thought were legitimate updates to software such as Adobe Flash and the Google Toolbar.
  • Create your own safe place. One of the best ways to protect your data usage is through virtual private network (VPM) software, which offers an encrypted gateway for accessing an Internet connection. Many people already use a VPN to log in remotely to their employers' networks. offers a guide for choosing a VPN and reviews 10 of the best.

Finally, always reserve sensitive online activities, such as banking and shopping, for when you are connected to a private, secure Internet connection. Encrypt and separate your public and private networks, check for secure connections in your browser, don't download in public, and use a VPN to ensure your and your customer's Wi-Fi safety.

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Amy Beth Miller is a writer and editor helping people succeed in business for more thana decade. She has written news articles, features, blogs, newsletters,e-letters white papers and training manuals.


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