Working over public wi-fi: how to protect your data while on the move

Public wi-fi: convenient for when your staff are working on the go. Many creative businesses use coffee shops as an easy way to conduct off-the-cuff meetings as well as grab some thinking time away from the office. There’s a risk, however, in connecting to an unsecured network where you don’t know who is in control or who else is connecting. Ideally, you should use your smartphone as a personal hotspot if you need internet on the go. But if that’s not practical, there are a few simple steps you and your staff can take to keep your business data safe.

Know the network

Where you can, use a well-known network – Starbucks’ for instance. They’re likely to be less prone to suspect activity. No public wi-fi network is 100% secure, and it’s down to a mixture of who’s on it with you as much as who’s providing it, but known brands and locations you recognise should, in theory, be safer than networks run by a third party you’ve never heard of. It’s also good common sense to use as few wi-fi networks as possible. The more networks you sign on to, the greater the chance that you’ll stumble on one that won’t treat your data as well as it should.

Don’t give too much away

Be wary of wi-fi networks that ask for personal information before connecting. There’s a trade-off in every sign-up. Retailers will often offer free wi-fi in exchange for information that enables them to recognise you across multiple wi-fi hotspots and tailor their marketing.

Use a VPN

Virtual Private Networks are simple to install on your devices, and encrypt your data in transit to a secure server. That makes it harder for other network users – or the network operator – to see your browsing or collect any data. VPNs in themselves, however, aren’t fool-proof. Some of the shadier VPN networks have been found to collect user data. Free VPNs might be financed by collecting marketing data about you, for instance. If in doubt, check review sites to see what other VPN users recommend before choosing one.

Stick to encrypted

Google Chrome now lets users know when a site uses an unencrypted HTTP connection rather than HTTPS, labelling them ‘not secure’. It’s worth paying attention to that warning, particularly if you’re on public wi-fi. When you browse over HTTPS, the data that travels between you and the server of the website you’re on is unavailable to other network users – unlike HTTP.

Turn off AirDrop and file sharing

When you’re sharing a network with strangers, it’s wise to disable the features that allow seamless file sharing. On a PC, go to Network and Sharing Centre to turn off printer and file sharing. On Macs, hit System Preferences, then Sharing and deselect every option. To turn off AirDrop on Apple devices, switch the setting to ‘Allow me to be discovered by: No one’. It could save you the hassle of receiving unwanted files or having your data unwittingly accessed.

Check the T&Cs

It’s something most of us ignore. We recommend that business users scan any attached terms and conditions before connecting to a public wi-fi network. It might be full of jargon, but you should be able to spot any clear red flags in terms of the kind of data they’re collecting from a session and what they plan to do with it. If the sign-up process asks you to install any browser extensions or add software, click away quickly.

Things are changing

You might have heard about WPA3: the new wi-fi security protocol, which will provide more protection to public and private networks. That’s being rolled out. In the meantime, the biggest security threats are often the result of not having the latest patches and security updates on your devices before heading out. It’s worth mentioning here that you shouldn’t download or install anything new over a public wi-fi network unless you absolutely need to.

The most fail-safe option will always be to download files before you leave your private network – or tether your devices to your phone’s hotspot for a more secure connection. If you do need to use public wi-fi, however, these simple tips should help keep your business data more protected.

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