There are several cities across Australia that are currently running or trialling publicly accessible Wi-Fi networks. Most recently, the NSW Government has announced it will be running a sponsored trial of free Wi-Fi on selected public buses across the city. But just because the government is backing the free service doesn't mean it's safe. There are still privacy and data security issues you need to consider if you're going to use any public Wi-Fi network.
Last week, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance announced the sponsored Wi-Fi trial on 50 public buses will be provided by advertising company APN Outdoor through its Catch service. There are plans to expand the trail to encompass around 1000 buses by the end of the year.
Users who want to jump on the free WiFi network on the buses will have to login through APN Outdoor's Catch portal. If you go to Catch's terms and conditions page, you'll notice that the WiFi service will collect tracking data along with "other data about you and your device (phone or tablet etc)".
This may include "name, address, date of birth, location details, drivers licence details, photographs, video, credit card details, employer and other details". To top it off, APN Outdoor will also have the right to share your personal information with other companies and store it in overseas datacentres.
The point of doing this is so APN Outdoor can serve users targeted ads and who doesn't want to take advantage of free internet to binge on YouTube videos on their daily commute? But there can be serious privacy and security implications when using these kinds of public Wi-Fi networks.
The NSW Greens party has raised concerns over the personal information of commuters being harvested for targeted advertising:
"If the cost of installing the system is being recovered by passengers becoming advertising targets, this must be made crystal clear up front," Greens MP and spokesperson for Transport Dr Mehreen Faruqi said. "As usual with this government, every promise comes with a catch - and this time it's sacrificing the privacy of passengers."
We also don't know how secure the Wi-Fi network is going to be, although it's always safe to assume all public Wi-Fi networks are insecure.
These are all valid concerns, but you should take responsibility for your own data security and privacy as well. The most secure thing you can do is avoid them all together, where possible. Use your mobile data network instead. But if you're dangerously close to your mobile data limit and you're desperate to use the free internet available, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself on public Wi-Fi networks.
#1 Read The Terms And Conditions Very Carefully
Here's the thing: nobody likes to read prolix terms and conditions text. Often it feels like vendors deliberately make them long and wordy to deter people from reading them in the first place.
You don't have to read every terms and conditions document that you encounter but when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks, it's worth going through them carefully to ensure you're not surrendering information that you aren't comfortable with. Providers have to provide the terms and conditions of use.
A lot of Wi-Fi networks, including the one that will be on Sydney buses, are set up in public places by marketing firms who are willing to give you some bandwidth in return for your information. The amount of information that is collected can vary between providers.
Sometimes it can be as simple as companies wanting to collect your email address through a sign up process, in which case you can always set up an alternative email address to access the service. Other times they might want a lot of personal details and it's up to you to make an informed decision on whether you're willing to surrender your data for the sake of watching a five-minute make-up tutorial on YouTube.
#2 Turn Off Sharing
Once you've decided that you want to take the risk of using a public Wi-Fi network, the first thing you want to do is to stop any form of sharing on your device. This is mainly applicable to laptops. 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.
#3 Use A VPN
Thanks to our love of accessing geo-blocked websites, more and more Australians now know about virtual private networks (VPNs). But besides being used to gain access to the US catalogue for Netflix and bypassing trivial website blocking of torrent sites, VPNs are also useful to protect your privacy.
Most public Wi-Fi networks are unsecured so that it's easier to allow people to easily connect to them. But this also makes it easier for others to see what you're doing on the network, especially when you're accessing non-HTTPS websites.
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.
The downside of VPNs is that often you have to pay for them (well, the more reputable ones, at least) but it's worth investing in one if you want to take your privacy seriously.
#4 Be Extra Careful When It Comes… Well, Everything You Do On Public Wi-Fi Networks
Even when you take all of the precautionary measures listed above, you need to be aware that public Wi-Fi networks are inherently more exposed than the ones at home or at work.
It's best to avoid doing online banking and accessing sensitive information when you're connected to public Wi-Fi networks.