How to stay secure on public Wi-Fi


Credit card numbers? Check. Website logins? Check. “Private” chats between cheating spouses? Double check.

Spend ten minutes in a coffee shop snooping on the “Free Public Wi-Fi!” and you’ll see all these things and more. Airports, libraries, parks? Same situation. Hotels are a little different, though. All the bandwidth is being taken up by people streaming porn, so there’s not much else going on.

Granted, this is the same type of traffic you’d see on a private, secure network, but in that setting you’re probably going to have a little better idea of who you’re sharing the network with and there are controls to keep potential criminals out.

Public Wi-Fi is exactly that, public. You are sharing it with everyone else in the local area, just like Jenny, that nice girl you went to highschool with who just wanted to feel pretty. For someone who’s interested in stealing financial information or identities, it’s an appealing target, mostly because it’s so easy to exploit. I wouldn’t even call it hacking, it’s more “collecting” – monitoring the network for unencrypted information and capturing the info that looks interesting.

Protect your neck

That being said, public Wi-Fi can be relatively safe to use if you take the appropriate steps to secure yourself and use a little common sense.

    • Starbucks is not a good place to balance your checkbook. Context is everything and there are certain places for doing certain things. Doing your online banking on public Wi-Fi is just a bad idea. Even if you’re taking steps to protect your laptop, there are too many factors that are out of your control to justify the risk. Restrict financial and other “sensitive” activities to networks you trust (like the one at your house).
    • Use a VPN service. A VPN (virtual private network) service will protect your internet traffic inside a secure tunnel out to the internet so that someone snooping locally won’t be able to see anything other than you connecting to the VPN service. Good VPNs aren’t free, but if you’re a heavy public Wi-Fi user, the cost is definitely worth the security you gain. I personally use a service called Cloak that works on Mac and iOS devices. If you’re not a super-awesome-Apple-user like me, I’ve also heard good things about StrongVPN.
    • Know what you’re connecting to. Although they can easily be spoofed to match the name of a real Wi-Fi network, it’s important to pay attention to the names of the wireless networks you use. Much in the same way that an e-mail titled “Free Money Waiting For YOU!” is probably spam, a wireless network named “Free Public Wi-Fi” is likely a scam.
    • Look at the physical signage wherever you are visiting. Starbucks uses AT&T to provide their Wi-Fi (It says so on the front door.), so the network there is called “attwifi”, not “starbuks” (The laziness that’s paired to Wi-Fi snooping is often paired with stupid.). Just being on the right public Wi-Fi for the location will keep you more secure. If you’re reading this thinking “Well, Mr. Smartypants, what if someone has exactly mimicked the name and setup of a real network and is performing a man-in-the-middle attack?” – see points 1 & 2.

When in doubt, bail out

Ultimately, if you doubt the safety or validity of a Wi-Fi network, don’t use it. It may come as a surprise to some people, but there are other things to do in public than surf the internet. If you’re presented with obviously unsafe options for wireless, maybe it’s a good time to strike up a conversation with one of the people around you. Read a book. Or maybe you should just sit quietly and contemplate your existence and how to become a better person.

Image Credit: Ed Yourdon

TunnelBear easily allows access to location-restricted websites


As someone who lives and works between two countries, I am the typical target market for the many companies offering locational VPN services. These VPN services allow those browsing the web in one country to appear as if they’re in a different country.

There are various reasons why someone might do this, but one of the main reasons why most people use VPN services is so they can access streaming TV content that would otherwise be blocked in their country.

One such VPN service is a snazzy little application called TunnelBear. Available for both Mac and Windows, TunnelBear is a very straightforward app with just two controls — an on/off switch and a switch to select between US and UK VPNs. These controls are laid out on a rather old-looking funky transistor radio background.

How it works

TunnelBear can be downloaded for free, but it’s limited to only 500MB of monthly bandwidth, which will disappear quickly if the service is used to watch streaming media. The free version gives everyone a chance to try the program out, but anyone using it frequently will want to pay for a monthly or annual subscription ($4.99/month or $49.99/year). TunnelBear also offers an extra 1GB of traffic to anyone who promotes the app via Twitter — a pleasingly innovative way of spreading the word. 

The program itself works almost faultlessly. Start the program, select US or UK, switch it on, and within ten seconds or so you have a US or UK IP address that will allow you to access anything you could access if you were in that country, including regional TV-on-demand services, cloud gaming platforms and region-locked YouTube content.

Is it legal?

The legality of using these kinds of services is certainly a grey area to say the least. For example, in the UK, citizens need a TV license to watch broadcasts from the BBC. If a UK citizen and license-payer were to travel abroad on holiday and use TunnelBear to watch BBC iPlayer, it would simply seem nonsensical for this to be illegal. However, those wishing to ensure they stay on the right side of the law may want to check legalities with the media services they plan to use. These VPN services do work, and many of them are promoted specifically as being for the purpose of watching streaming media, but his doesn’t always mean it is permitted.


TunnelBear is a great app and it has its uses beyond just viewing media, such as the ability to search Google in another country (useful for web and SEO work). The only problem you may experience is a flaky internet connection if you quit the app while it is still connected to the UK or US. However, this is a minor complaint for a piece of software that does what it is intended for, and does it very well indeed.