Public WiFi Security

Public WiFi security isn’t the most exciting topic. But for freelancers, it is a critical issue. When you use public WiFi, you could be opening yourself up to data theft, identity fraud, and even stalking. And if you’re working for corporate clients, your laptop could be the weak link in the chain; a way to spread viruses and malware that wreaks havoc for the entire company.

Here’s everything you need to know to ensure that your data, and your clients’ data, is kept private.

Cybersecurity is Your Problem Too

Whether you work with small businesses or large, corporate clients, you need to pay the same attention to your data security as the big companies that are hiring you. Like it or not, you could be the only gateway to valuable intellectual property.

If a hacker gains access to your computer, or your email account, they could obtain passwords and other information that gives them access to the systems your client uses. You could also get into hot water for exposing intellectual property, or violating the clause of your freelancing contract entirely by accident.

And if you work on-site at the company office, there’s an additional risk. Any viruses or malware planted on your computer could be transferred to the corporate network when you connect to it at a later date.

Freelancer working in a coffee shop

When it comes to security and privacy, being a freelancer is really no different to being a formal employee. You probably have access to the same important data that employees do, and you probably some of the same tools and software. So don’t write off public WiFi security as a problem that only affects big business. As a freelancer, you have a responsibility to know the risks as well.

How Public WiFi Security Fails Freelancers

Most of us have logged on to a coffee shop’s WiFi network, desperate to finish up a blog or a report before a client’s deadline. When you’re rushed, stressed, and desperate for a reliable internet connection, it’s very easy to take whatever WiFi you can get.

But this is where the problems start. Many public WiFi networks are vulnerable to a variety of threats:

  • Man in the Middle attacks, where a hacker intercepts traffic between one point on the network and another to view or alter it. This could lead to content being spliced into a website you’re viewing, placing a fake login form or other content into a page.
  • Interception of data sent through unsecured forms. Many contact pages, booking request forms, and logins are not protected by HTTPS (including some account pages on the eBay website, just to give one example). That could give away your address, phone number, and real name.
  • Plain text interception of browsing data, like your social media URLs. A quick Google would lead the hacker back to your profile page, photo, and contact information.
  • Distribution of malware and viruses; these may look like legitimate software updates that pop up while you’re on the network.
  • Fake WiFi hotspots that look like the real thing, but are run by hackers, not legitimate providers. Sometimes these hotspots are given the same name as legitimate networks around them, so your devices may automatically connect to them if you’ve used a network with the same name before.

These threats may lead to someone watching what you’re doing, using your identity to apply for new accounts, or even stalking you once you log off. A determined hacker could even view the network names on your devices, which could lead them back to the hotel you’re staying at, or the name of the company you’re freelancing for. Social media marketers might be particularly vulnerable, since many of the URLs they access contain clues about their account information.


Wireshark UI

All the while, you’re risking your data and the data entrusted to you by the clients you work for. If something goes wrong, and you lose your contract, that could be the least of your worries.

Easy Ways to Manage Security Risks

It’s unrealistic to expect every freelancer to carry an expensive personal WiFi hotspot around wherever they go. And public WiFi is a genuinely essential service for freelancers that need to move around between client sites.

There are some very simple and affordable ways to protect yourself while still using the WiFi networks you depend on.

Subscribe to a VPN Service

A VPN is essentially an encrypted tunnel for all of your internet traffic. Once you’re connected to the VPN, you don’t need to worry about public WiFi security, because everything you do online is hidden from view. Many businesses set up their own VPNs for employee use. If you don’t have access, you can use a third-party service instead.

While free VPN services do exist, they aren’t suitable for freelancers or business users. Often, they’ll be slow, and you might not be able to find out exactly how they’re funded; some less scrupulous companies are accused of selling data behind the scenes. It’s much safer to pay for an established, trusted VPN provider with a strong privacy policy, good speeds, and reliable software. (Many can be used on tablets and phones, which is handy.)

A VPN is not a cure-all, but it’s pretty close, and the cost rarely exceeds that of a couple of coffees a month. Once you’ve installed the software, it’s a ‘set and forget’ solution, and you can use any network with confidence. Many VPNs even disable your connection if the connection to the VPN server drops, so you’ll rarely have any cause to worry.

Put Your Browser to Work

Browser extensions are a bit of a gray area. Some have been caught selling users’ browsing history, so don’t go installing everything that looks like it may help. Sometimes, extensions that claim to defend your privacy are the worst offenders.

But there is one good option that’s safe to install. HTTPS Everywhere forces HTTP on any website that offers it. So it may shore up security when you’re using sites like Facebook, Google AnalyticsGmail and — yes — eBay. This extension is provided by two well-known privacy defenders, the Tor Project and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

If you’re looking for strong privacy protection, you could install the Tor Browser. But that’s an advanced option, and most freelancers will do just fine with a combination of other measures.

Update All Software Regularly

Get into the habit of installing software updates as soon as they’re available, rather than putting them off until tomorrow.

Providing you downloaded the updates on a trusted connection (like your home WiFi), installing updates right away will prevent you against the risks of running outdated software.

Cryptolocker ransomware

We already know old versions of Windows are susceptible to ransomware infection. Assuming you don’t want to lose that blog you’re working on, and you also don’t have a few hundred bitcoin lying around to pay a hacker, this is common sense stuff.

Physically Secure Your Devices

Hackers are always looking for the easiest way to gain access to your computer. In some cases, they will just wait until your device is unattended, and install malware right there and then. This can happen even if your device is locked with a password.

When you’re working remotely, don’t go leaving your laptop on someone else’s desk in a random co-working space, or parking your stuff before you head to the counter to order a coffee. Public WiFi security is a big enough problem without introducing the possibility of physical interference as well.

Tl;dr: Whenever you need a break, pick up your laptop and take it with you.

Are You Doing Enough to Protect Your Data?

Cybersecurity hits the headlines every few days, but the really big breaches are linked with huge companies with millions of user accounts. That can lead freelancers to have a false sense of security. And it’s easy to assume that nobody is interested in what you do online.

But public WiFi security should be a key concern for any freelancer that needs reliable internet access away from their home or office. It’s surprising how many freelancers play fast and loose with the information they have access to. And the fixes are easy. Set aside an hour to learn how to protect yourself. Your most valuable clients may thank you for it one day.

1-31-12 At the office by Emily Mills, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0. Cryptolocker Ransomware by Christiaan Colen, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Wireshark UI by Linux Screenshots/ Xmodulo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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Claire Broadley

Technical writer, blogger, and editor at Red Robot Media
Claire Broadley has been a technical author and web content writer at Red Robot since 2010. She contributes to dozens of websites, focusing on consumer technology, online privacy, digital marketing, and small business topics.
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