As I said in the book, when you hear “public wi-fi,” think “public toilet.” There’s gonna be germs. Both in public and at home, wi-fi sets up a local space where creeps and thieves could get to your digital valuables. But you can still keep your devices clean and safe! Check out the following tips to protect yourself when you’re on wifi.
Like your laptop and your phone, a wifi router is also a computer. This means you can connect to it over the network just like you’d connect to a webpage or app.
Decent Security recommends a three-step process to access your router:
Look at your router—the actual physical box that sends the wifi out to your house—and see what brand and model it is. This might mean finding a sticker on it. That sticker might also have a default password on it, and if it does, that should also help you out.
Go to routerpasswords.com to find the default login name and password for that brand and model.
Then check these addresses to see if you can connect to your router:
192.168.0.1 | 192.168.1.1 | 192.168.2.1 | 10.10.10.1 | 10.0.0.1
You’ll need the login name and password to log in when you connect to these.
If that doesn’t bring up your router setting page, here’s further instructions from HowToGeek on ways to find it.
Did you make it through to your router settings page and manage to log in to the router using those steps? Congratulations, you have hacked it! (I’m serious—much of the time, all it takes to hack is simply looking up public information and using it to see if a computer still has defaults set.) You have access to your system, and it’s under your control, and you’re not using it for evil, so you’re a white-hat hacker (named for the good guys in white hats in old Westerns).
Now it’s time to make sure nobody else takes control of your wifi.
Look around the settings page, and see if you can find how to do the following:
Change the password of your router. This is huge. You just saw how easy it is to find the default password for your router online—if you can do it, anyone can.
Make a nice long(er than 16 characters) random password or passphrase, and save it to your password manager or write it in your password book.
Change the name of your home wifi from the default. Keeping the original name broadcasts what brand of router you are using—which can give bad guys a clue about ways to break in to your network. Have fun, if you want—I’ve seen any number of wifi networks called something like “FBI Surveillance Van.”
Remember, don’t use a name that broadcasts who you are if you’re worried about people nearby knowing which network is yours. (This could be a concern if you have an angry ex/stalker/nosy neighbor/etc.)
If you don’t like corporations knowing about you, you can add _optout_nomap to the end of the name of your wifi. This tells Microsoft and Google that you do not want your wifi network to be included in their database of locations.
Select the WPA2 security protocol at the very least. If possible, WPA3 or WPA2-AES would be even better. This option may be in a menu on the router settings page marked something like “security type” or “security mode.” Poke around until you find it.
When you’re at a cafe or airport and looking for a network, remember, you’re on public wifi. That just means a lot more people have easy access to the network. You don’t control the login or the security. And you might be surprised by what “anyone has easy access” means. An unencrypted network means everything you do online is sent in the clear over the airwaves, and someone with the right tools can see it. I know a hacker who used to play a trick on people on public wifi. He’d watch the traffic to see when someone’s device sent a request for an image—say, a GIF on a webpage—and when they did, he’d make the webpage show them a picture of his grinning face instead.
But public wifi doesn’t mean you need to switch to more expensive cell phone data, or give up going online entirely. Here’s how to stay safer.
Use a VPN. A Virtual Private Network basically creates an armored tunnel for your connection as it passes through the local wifi router. See this article for recommendations of VPNs to use.
Maybe wait to do financial transactions or use other sensitive logins until you’re on a network that fewer people have access to. If it’s urgent and you’ve got your VPN on, go ahead. But this is an easy way to protect your most important valuables.
Use networks that require a password rather than ones that don’t. No password means they are not encrypted, and anyone can do anything to them.
Again, look for networks using the WPA2 security protocol at the very least, WPA3 or WPA2-AES if possible. Avoid WEP, WPA, WPA2-TKIP, and unsecured (no password, no lock next to the name) networks if you’re not using a VPN. Here’s how to do it:
On Windows, in your Control Panel, look for something like Network and Internet, and then “View network status and tasks.” When you’re looking at the list of network names, that information may also be provided, or you may need to right-click on a network or look for a button marked “Wireless Properties” that takes you to where you can look at “Security” options.
On a Mac, you can hold down the Option key while you click the wifi icon in the top right of the screen before you choose a network. That will show additional details about the network. You will also see whether it’s WPA2 if there’s a screen that asks you for your password.
An iPhone may warn you about WEP or unsecured networks. If you see “Security Recommendation” under the name of a network, it’s telling you to use a more secure network.
Unfortunately, Android phones can make it a little challenging to see which protocol a network is using before you connect. Experiment with looking for “Wi-Fi” in the “Settings” app, and poking at different networks.
WEP? WPA? How do I remember?
It’s a little hard to remember the difference between the acronyms WEP (which is no longer good security) and WPA. Here’s my trick:
“Which one shares a name with the program to give Americans jobs during the Great Depression? Ah yes: the Works Progress Administration. That’s the one I like. We could really use Version 2 or 3 of it right about now.”
For more steps you can take to protect your digital security, check out the security section of this website and pick up a copy of Keep Calm and Log On!