Is WiFi At Starbucks Safe? A WiFi Safety Primer

How to Stay Safe When Using Free WiFi at Starbucks
How to Stay Safe When Using Free WiFi at Starbucks

Yes, having a nice cup of coffee at Starbucks while checking your email, Facebook or another website is nice, but are you really safe when using free WiFi in a coffee shop or other public place?

We’re going to take a look at this question and give you some specific tips to you can protect your sensitive personal information and make sure you don’t get hacked or pick up a nasty virus or malware.

Is WiFi At Starbucks Safe?

The same scene unfolds all across the world  every day. Someone goes into a coffee shop, hooks up to the free internet connection, and begins browsing as usual to their normal sites –  including their online bank account. Unbeknownst to them, however, a black hat hacker is somewhere in the shop (or even in the parking lot) sneaking a look at all the wireless traffic passing through that shop’s network – and they can read anything that is not encrypted.

The bad guys don’t always look like the villains you see in the movies. In a moment, they can capture the data they want and be gone, never to be seen again, with access to your bank account or other information about you. Sound like a nightmare scenario? This is why you need to take security seriously when you’re using free WiFi in public places.

How to Stay Safe When Using Free WiFi

Whether you’re jumping online with the WiFi at Starbucks on your laptop or using another public connection on your tablet or mobile device, this advice will help improve your safety when you’re surfing. Free access is great, but with public internet connections, you really need to make sure you’re taking steps to protect your personal information and other data.

  • Disable File Sharing – The first thing you want to do is disable your file sharing. If you’re using Windows, this is done under Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center in the control panel (you can tailor your settings for private and public networks). For Apple OS X, go to System Preferences > Sharing and make sure everything is unchecked. Be sure to Apply or Save the settings so they go into effect.
  • Turn Off Remote Access – While you’re at it, Windows users are going to want to also lock down Remote Access. Unfortunately, it’s rather common for people to have this set up for one reason or another (it’s usually active by default in Windows) when they really don’t need the service – especially when browsing on a public WiFi network.
  • Keep (All) Software Up to Date – From your web browser to your anti-virus and anti-malware software, you want to keep your software and apps up to date at all times. Most programs and mobile apps will have an option to allow the software to update itself. This is the best way to make sure you stay on top of everything.
  • Use a Virtual Private Network – If you have an access to a VPN, this is going to be the safest way for you to browse the internet while using a free WiFi connection like the type that can be found at Starbucks and other coffee shops around the world. Your IP address, data transfers and all of your online activity are hidden when you properly connect through a VPN.
  • Turn On Your Firewall – Most modern operating systems (like Windows and OS X) have a built in software firewall. While this typically doesn’t offer as much protection as a hardware firewall built into a router, you’re going to want to keep it on anyway. This will help protect you against basic probing and other potentially malicious cyber attacks.
  • Turn WiFi OFF When Not in Use – If you’re not going to be using WiFi to get on the internet for one reason or another, disable your WiFi connection. This is really simple to turn on and off, and when you switch it off, the bad guys aren’t going to be able to probe your computer and try to attack it. Not using public WiFi is the best way to ensure you stay safe.
  • Set Up a Separate Profile for Public Browsing  – Windows offers a way to set-up a profile for public WiFi hotspots. This is a great way to ensure that all your settings are correct when you’re going to be using WiFi in Starbucks or another public place. Set it up once, then switch over to the public profile when needed. While Apple OS X doesn’t offer automation of public Wi-Fi security settings, you can easily install  ControlPlane and get the same convenience as you would find with a Windows system. It can even be used to automatically connect you to a VPN when you’re connecting in a public place.
  • Use HTTPS and SSL – One security indicator is something you can see in front of the web address you’re visiting. If the site you are visiting is using SSL to encrypt and protect data being sent to and coming from the web server, you’ll see “HTTPS://” in front of the address, as well as a padlock icon near the address bar. Additionally, you may see the address bar turn green in color – the lock icon means your traffic is encrypted, while the green address bar indicates the address is using an Extended Validation certificate for an added level of trust. A useful tool to secure your public browsing comes from the good guys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They have created HTTPS Everywhere – it’s an easy-to-install browser extension for Chrome, Opera and both PC and Android versions of Firefox, which automatically directs your browser to secure connections whenever they’re available.

For even more explanation on why public WiFi might not be safe, you can listen to Are you secure? WiFi Honeypots, Pineapples and SSL with Troy Hunt. They also have a transcript of the show available if you’d prefer to read the information. It’s a good look at the state of internet security back in 2013.

Be Safe, Be Aware, Black Hat Hackers are Everywhere

The best way to stay safe online when using a public WiFi hotspot is to be aware of the risks and take steps to avoid them as much as possible. This may sound like common sense (because it is), but it’s too easy to trade security for convenience these days.

If you have other ideas on how to stay safe when using WiFi at Starbucks or another public location, please leave a comment below and share your wisdom. When it comes to staying safe online these days, it’s important to share as much information as possible.

And if you have the time and want to be a good geek, pass this page on to a friend or family member that uses public WiFi frequently. It only takes a moment or two, and you never know when passing the information along is going to save someone a lot of trouble in the future.

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