South African municipalities and the private sector have invested heavily in public WiFi hotspots across the country over the last few years, and they’re now quite common and easy to find, particularly in large metros.

In the City of Tshwane alone, there are over 900 free WiFi hotspots in schools, libraries, bus stops, hospitals, squares and other public spaces where residents can use up to 500MB of free WiFi data on their mobiles or laptops every day.

In addition to enabling more people to look at cat pics, troll internet strangers, and access Wikipedia, free WiFi is helping residents do their school work, carry out their business activities and even find employment.

According to government, the main purpose behind public WiFi initiatives is to achieve universal internet access for all with an internet-enabled device, regardless of residential area and economic background. And in that regard, government is doing a sterling job of granting access to an ever-growing number of South Africans.

There is a caveat, however: while having access to these services is fantastic, it comes with the responsibility to make sure people make use of it wisely and safely, because the internet is full of hidden, lurking dangers like hackers anxious to get their hands on your useful personal information.

So how do you make sure you stay safe at public WiFi hotspots? Let’s get into that quickly.

Only access encrypted sites

Every single website address that you visit when connected to a public WiFi network should start with “https”. Why is this important? Well, this ensures that the site you’re accessing is secure (that’s what the S stands for) and protects the connection between your laptop/phone/tablet and the site’s servers.

That security is provided by encryption, a technical trick that scrambles the data and requires a specific – and difficult to guess – “key” to access, that only you are in possession of. By encrypting that data, every detail, including that all-important sensitive personal information, is safe from interested hackers.

As you have probably guessed, our next bit of advice is that if you only see “http”, indicating that the site you’re trying to access on a public WiFi connection isn’t encrypted, just close the page and move on.

Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid sites that ask for vital personal information entirely when you’re connected to public WiFi. So don’t do any online banking, don’t buy anything from an online shop and don’t make any payments, just to be sure there’s no chance of passwords, account numbers or PINs being stolen or intercepted by unsavoury types who may be using sophisticated software to intercept the data of all devices connected to the network.

Two-step authentication

If you really have to do your banking or access personal sites on a public WiFi network, incorporating two-step authentication (a security measure which allows you to combine two different ways of authenticating, like a password and security question that work together) will help in better protecting you from any threats.

Most social media, email and banking sites have a two-step authentication function you can activate, so make use of it before connecting to the network.

This way, even if someone steals your password, the second authentication step (entering a PIN sent to your phone or saying who your third grade teacher was, for example) will quite likely stop them from proceeding any further.

Always turn off WiFi when it’s not in use

Your device’s WiFi should never be on when you’re not using it, so make sure to always turn it off once you’re done using the internet.

This helps ensure that you don’t automatically log into any previous networks you may have accessed in the past when you approach the hotspot again, and safeguards any info from your installed apps –  particularly private info-sensitive ones – from being automatically activated upon connection.

An app like IFTTT (If This, Then That) can help you automate the process of turning WiFi off when you’re out of range of previously-used WiFi networks.

Install a mobile internet security app

According to online security product maker Symantec, when you’re on a public hotspot, you have no idea what infections other connected computers might have, or whether a hacker is prowling the network.

So, if you’re using a mobile, head over to your operating system’s app store (Google Play, iTunes, Windows Store etc.) to find and download a reliable anti-virus/security app. Be sure to read the reviews, which will tell you whether they’re fake or not.

If you’re using a PC, look for one online or head to your nearest tech retailer to purchase one. These days, most PC security suites also cover mobile devices, so keep that in mind when shopping. Expect to pay around R500 for multi-device protection for a year.

You can either start by trying out free trial versions or just go ahead and subscribe from the onset to keep using the app or software for a longer period.

Whichever one you choose, install it before you access any public WiFi network.

Not a perfect world

In a perfect world, accessing public WiFi would be more of a pleasure than a headache, but because not everyone has good intentions, people need to be aware of the dangers and protect themselves accordingly.

Making the above tips a habit should help make the experience a completely pleasant one and save you from becoming an unfortunate victim.

[ Image – CC Charleston’s TheDigitel]