As I said in the book, when you hear “public wifi,” think “public toilet.” There’s gonna be germs. By definition, public wifi lets a whole lot of people access it. That access gives pretty much anyone the ability to put malware on the network (provided they have the skills to do it), or the ability to look at your internet traffic as it passes through the router.
Fortunately, the protection you need against this threat is easy to find and simple to use: a virtual private network, or VPN. VPNs basically send all of the internet traffic you generate through an (encrypted) armored tunnel as it passes from your device through the router and on to the VPN company’s servers.
Make sure you’re using a recommended VPN. Don’t just grab some random VPN off the app store—there are any number of malicious VPNs out there ready to share your traffic with the people who run them.
Here’s a brief list of VPNs I recommend:
Tunnelbear is a favorite of mine. Not only does it do a great job of explaining what a VPN does with animations, it also contains visual jokes with cute cartoon bears. They have a free version with limited access, and a paid version that gives you more access. Pro tip: they discount their annual subscription around the holidays. Cons: they may not be the best if you’re looking to stream video.
Alternately, if you’re frightened by bears, you could try GooseVPN.
RiseupVPN was developed by a respected network that has worked for many years to protect the communications of people organizing against injustice.
Psiphon was developed specifically to help people in countries where the internet is censored.
Get your VPN from a trusted location. This is an app you want to get through your device’s app store (or one of the links above), where you know you’re getting the genuine article. If you download it from an unofficial app store, or make a typo and don’t end up with the verified provider on the app store, there’s a high likelihood you’ll end up downloading that comes preinstalled with malware.
Make sure you know how to tell when your VPN is on or off. Kind of a no-brainer, but check on this, particularly if you’re about to do financial transactions on a public network. VPNs may not automatically turn on when you turn on your device. Remember, when you’re watching video or listening to music, your device may still be checking your email or updating other apps in the background—so don’t assume “I’m not doing anything important right now.” If you’re on public wifi, keep your VPN on.
Consider whether you want to stream video. This is many people’s reason for using VPNs: they can get you past location restrictions on services like Netflix or Hulu, to watch videos from overseas. However, not every VPN is robust enough to keep up a nice quick streaming connection. Try out a couple of the ones recommended here to see which one works for you.
VPNs have other benefits, too! They are often used by people in countries or companies where the internet has been censored and people who want a little more protection against companies tracking their data (as it makes you look like you’re coming from a different location).
Just remember: no security tool is a magical invisibility cloak. VPNs will not hide your identity, particularly if you’re using them to send email or post on social media. They will not protect the contents of your device.
For more steps you can take to protect your digital security and privacy, pick up a copy of Keep Calm and Log On!