How do I know a Wi-Fi network is secure?Oct 25, 2021 11:32AM ● By Adam Cochran
My favorite columns to write are the ones that address questions from readers. Last month, I received a great question from Bonnie who is preparing for a three-month-long RV trip.
“I’m concerned that the Wi-Fi is not secure at the RV parks. Are there any apps to help me feel comfortable using [the parks’] Wi-Fi?”
Bonnie’s question relates to everyone who uses Wi-Fi regularly, whether they’re traveling or not. (And whether they use a laptop, smartphone, or tablet.)
Wi-Fi has become nearly ubiquitous in public spaces. Almost all major businesses and private spaces have Wi-Fi available to patrons and visitors. Most devices use less battery and function better when connected to Wi-Fi than they do without any internet access.
The disadvantage to Wi-Fi, especially public networks, is that you don’t have any guarantees that a bad guy isn’t skimming your data as it moves through the airwaves. While it’s not necessary to be paranoid about public Wi-Fi, here are a few things that can ensure your connection is secure and your data is safe.
• Official Wi-Fi networks are the safest. If you’re staying at a hotel or working from a coffee shop, make sure you’re connected to the business’ official network. Connecting to a network named, “Free Wi-Fi” is never a good idea.
• Configure your settings for a public network. These are the default settings for Windows and Apple devices, but if you use your device on a private home network, those settings may have been changed. Setting your computer up for a public network keeps your information private from everyone else on the network. Setting it up on a private network makes selected data available to everyone who is connected to your network. This may seem backward, but remember that public and private are referring to who the network is connecting to, not the security of your data.
• Know the basics of encryption. In the top left corner of any web browser, by the web address, there’s a tiny padlock icon. If the padlock is closed, it means the connection between your computer and that website is encrypted by a mathematical algorithm so complex even the government can’t even break it. The padlock alone, however, isn’t enough. Bad guys can create a site that’s encrypted too, so make sure the site you’re dealing with is common and legitimate. For example, Amazon.com is safe to use your credit card, but accidentally typing in “Amazno.com” may take you to an encrypted counterfeit site that’s set up to gather information from poor spellers.
• When in doubt, use a personal hotspot. Most smartphones have a personal hotspot feature that allows you to connect your laptop or tablet to your cellphone’s data network. This always adds to the cost of your cell service, but it’s great when you don’t trust the available networks. You can also buy personal hotspots through pre-paid services like Tracfone or Straight Talk Wireless.
• Satellite internet is an (expensive) option. If you frequently travel by RV or van—especially in places without any cell coverage—a satellite internet system may be worth looking into. However, satellite internet setups for RVs are not cheap and the monthly costs are pretty high because mobile systems continuously adjust to receive a signal. In addition to the $400-$2,000 for the equipment and the $200+/month service, there are usually installation costs. If this sounds intriguing, I would recommend starting with a satellite TV provider and asking about RV packages and plans.
• Finally, the safest option is to use your phone’s data plan. Not all websites are compatible with mobile devices, but the data connection that comes with your phone is going to be more secure than any public Wi-Fi network.
There are a lot of decisions to make and it’s best to make them as early as possible so you can enjoy your trip. My favorite travel preparedness tip is to download all of the apps you may need and set up those accounts beforehand. Virtually every gas station, airline, hotel and restaurant has an app that will make your experience easier, cheaper and more enjoyable.