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Digital Families: Using Public Wi-Fi Safely

Digital Citizens, Friday, November 7, 2014

Free Wi-Fi Here.  We’ve all seen the signs—in restaurants, hotels, airports, coffee shops, and other public places—and we’re coming to depend on having access to Wi-Fi just about anywhere we go. 

But is it safe to use?  As part of our Digital Families Project, we want to provide some tips to help you better understand how public Wi-Fi works, and more importantly, how to ensure you and your family are using it safely, especially children and seniors who may not be as cautious as you.

First, is public Wi-Fi safe to use?

The answer is, yes and no.  How safe it is really depends on how you use it. 

According to Microsoft’s Safety & Security Center, there are four basic things you can do to make sure you’re using free public Wi-Fi as safely as possible:

  1. Keep your computer’s anti-virus and anti-spyware software current and up to date—however, “never update your software on a public Internet connection.”  Also, ensure your passwords are strong and “never turn off your firewall.”
  2. Try to find the most secure connection you can, even if it means paying for a password-protected connection.  That is the safest way to use public Wi-Fi, and a small fee for security may save you hundreds or thousands in the long run by keeping your personal information safe.
  3. Don’t send sensitive information when using public Wi-Fi.  Avoid banking transactions, sending credit card info, or other financial matters until you are on a secure network.  If you absolutely have to enter your credit card number, “make sure you see a locked padlock icon in the corner of the browser window” and the “https:” at the beginning of the URL.
  4. Turn off your wireless network when it’s not in use.  Disabling your wireless network when you’re in an area with free public Wi-Fi—and not currently using it—will help protect your computer from hackers.

Second, is it safe for kids?

If you have a teenager (or even a pre-teen), chances are they have a smart phone.  And that means they can access public Wi-Fi anytime they are in range.  While most people using public Wi-Fi are doing so for completely harmless reasons, some cyber criminals may be lurking on public Wi-Fi connections to “retrieve your financial information, learn about your family situation, delve into personal matters,” or other illegal activities.

Fortunately, there are many things you can do to help your children use public Wi-Fi safely, including:

  • Set up a parental control system on your children’s mobile device, “including setting time limits and monitoring what types of websites” they visit.
  • Turn off network sharing on sites that request users to share their files.  Denying these requests will help protect your children’s (and your) personal and financial information.
  • Disable the “automatic connect” setting on your children’s devices.  That will prevent devices “from being picked up by open networks” as your children pass through spaces with public Wi-Fi.
  • Talk to your children.  Perhaps the most important thing you can do, talking to your kids about the importance of using free public Wi-Fi carefully is the best way to help them understand—and avoid—the privacy risks.

And what about seniors?

Generally speaking, seniors are not as Internet-savvy as children are today, so it’s important to help them understand the difference between using a secure, password-protected Wi-Fi connection and one that is free for public use. 

You can help by explaining to them how easy it is for hackers or other bad actors to access the information they send while using public Wi-Fi, so they know to:

  • Avoid making banking or other financial transactions.
  • Check for encrypted sites if they absolutely must send banking or credit card information.
  • Not send emails with personal or sensitive information until they are on a secured network.

 Check out more tips for using public Wi-Fi safely from the Federal Trade Commission.

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