I travelled to China for work recently. I'll admit, my paranoia level was at an all-time high; the country is known to filter and monitor internet activity. They don't call it The Great Firewall of China for nothing. Compounding my fears was the fact that I had to rely on public WiFi networks in a hotel. Considering my room had four broken power points, my confidence in the hotel's WiFi network security was low. All this got me thinking about ways to protect myself on public WiFi networks in general. Here are a few techniques you may find useful as well.
Taking extra security measures may sound like a bit of an overkill, especially when you're in a country where the Government is not so hardcore in monitoring its citizens. But cybercriminals are a smart bunch and they're constantly finding new ways to launch attacks and steal personal data.
We often connect to public WiFi networks when we're out and about. Often we won't think twice about it; you're getting free internet and it's a more attractive option than tethering from your mobile phone since you don't have to eat into your data allowance. But there's no guarantee public WiFi networks are safe; you don't know whether there's enough protection in place in the backend and it's easy for cybercriminals to set up a fake network to lure victims into connecting to it.
Sometimes, we don't have a choice but to rely on public WiFi networks. I was in China with no working phone so I had to use the hotel connection to get any work done. The best thing to do is to exercise caution and put in some extra security measures to protect your privacy.
#1 Turn off sharing
The first thing you want to do when you're using a public WiFi network is to stop any form of sharing on your device. It's common for us to have sharing settings on to connect with printers and other devices to share files but you'll want to stop doing that when you're using a network in the wild.
If you're using Windows, here's how you can disable sharing, depending on what version of the operating system you're using:
- On Windows 10: Hit the Windows button and click the gears icon to go to Settings. Then click on Network and Internet > Wi-Fi > Advanced sharing settings. Turn off file and printer sharing and network discovery.
- Windows 8: Go to the Start Menu and find the Control Panel. Then head to Network and Internet > View network status and Tasks > Change advanced sharing settings > Turn off file and printer sharing and network discovery.
- Windows 7: Open the Start Menu, go to Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Change advanced sharing settings > Home or Work > Turn off file and printer sharing
For Mac OS X users, it's System Preferences > Sharing and uncheck the File Sharing box.
Don't forget to save the changes when you're done with the settings.
#2 Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN)
This is a no-brainer and public awareness about VPNs has increased thanks to our love of circumventing geo-blocked content. Besides helping us get access to more movies on Netflix, VPNs is also a great tool in preventing others from tracking our activities online.
VPNs gives users the ability to securely access a private network and share data remotely through public networks. This is done by using a combination of dedicated connections and encryption protocols to generate virtual peer-to-peer (P2P) connections. Big companies often use them so that workers can connect securely to the corporate network while they're working remotely.
One major advantage of VPNs is that they allow users to fake their location, which is why they've become a valuable tool to bypass geo-blocking.
There are plenty of VPN services you can subscribe to. We’ve put together a list of the top five VPN providers for 2016 and judging from the comments section, everybody has their own opinions about which one is better and other VPNs they prefer.
I personally used a homebrewed VPN while I was working in China, but it's not something everybody can do. I use a fancy software firewall at home and have a fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) National Broadband Network (NBN) connection so the upload speed is good enough to support a VPN. The setup process takes a bit of fiddling around as well so if you want to skip all the work, just pay for VPN access.
#3 Connect to the Tor network
Tor stands for The Onion Router and was originally a global network of servers developed by the US Navy to allow people to browse the internet anonymously. It's now a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to the research and development of online privacy tools.
Tor works a little like BitTorrent, in that it's a decentralised network with multiple nodes, however it's for internet browsing, not file transfer. Using the Tor browser software, you can mask your identity by moving your traffic across Tor servers. The traffic is anonymised and can't be easily traced back to your IP.
You've probably heard of Tor in unsavoury stories about underground criminals using Tor to conduct illegal business; yes, the network is used for that kind of thing. It's also used by journalists and activists who live in countries ruled by oppressive governments, which is testament to how well Tor can protect people's identities. Having said that, it's not a perfect system: it's easy to tell that a user is on Tor, it's just hard to tell where the user is located. And, like most things, it is possible to crack the network if you have enough resources.
Nonetheless, it's still a useful tool if you're an individual who wants to go that one step further to protect your privacy. Tor is easy to use but the drawback is that, because of the way the network is set up, it can be very slow.
For a super easy way to get onto the Tor network, you can opt to use Tails. It's essentially a collection of software that makes it easy to connect to the Tor network without the need to configure your browser. It works on Windows, Linux and Mac OS.
Do you think about privacy protection when you're using an open WiFi network? If so, what techniques and tools are you currently using to protect your privacy on public WiFi networks? Let us know in the comments.