Using a VPN to Stay Safe on Public Wi-Fi

Most of us have become accustomed to the convenience of using public Wi-Fi. When you’re at a restaurant, library, airport, or other public location, public hotspots allow you to access the internet easily, whether you want to visit a website, check email, or send files. Using public Wi-Fi, however, poses a significant security hazard.

Virtual private networks (VPNs) have emerged as a popular tool to hide work-related and personal web activity from hackers, snoops, and data collectors, ensuring that sensitive data and communications — as well as enterprise networks — are not compromised.

Let’s take a closer look at VPNs and how to use them.

What Is a VPN?

Hackers can access any unencrypted data transmitted between your computer, laptop, phone, or other device and the internet. A VPN is a software solution that minimizes the risk of using public Wi-Fi. It provides privacy and security by creating an encrypted channel, often referred to as a tunnel, that connects your device to the internet via a private proxy server.

This encryption helps keep your internet activity hidden from internet service providers, public Wi-Fi hosts, hackers, snoops, and others. A VPN also hides your device’s IP address, replacing it with the IP address of your VPN’s proxy server. This feature makes it more difficult for websites to track you. It also hides your location: To the sites you visit, it will appear that you are at the proxy server’s location rather than where you actually are.

How Does It Protect You on a Public Network?

When connecting a user’s device to a public network, VPN software encrypts, or scrambles, the data sent between your device and your VPN provider’s server. The encrypted data is wrapped with a header containing routing information. The data packets that pass through a public network are unreadable without the decryption keys. The VPN server then connects to the websites you want to visit, and the data returned to your device is also encrypted for its passage through the public Wi-Fi server to your device.

How Do You Use a VPN on a Public Network?

When connecting to a free public Wi-Fi hotspot, a user opens their VPN software to establish an encrypted connection with their VPN’s proxy server. The simple-to-use software creates a secure tunnel between the device and the internet.

To ensure security when using a VPN on a public Wi-Fi connection, it’s a good idea to take these additional precautions:

  • Adjust your Wi-Fi setting so that your device does not automatically connect to Wi-Fi.
  • Connect only to a public network that requires a password, if possible.
  • Keep your firewall and antivirus enabled to lower the risk of unauthorized access or malware.
  • Always verify the name of the network you want to connect to. To attract victims, hackers sometimes set up an “evil twin,” a network with a name that can be confused with a known hotspot. For example, if your device finds two similar-sounding public networks — “Coffee Shop public” and “free coffee shop wifi” — confirm with the coffee shop’s staff which network is theirs.

You can also use a VPN in other connection scenarios. For example, if you use a desktop at a hotel or client workspace that has an ethernet connection, using a VPN can hide your data and IP address from your host’s server and hackers. This ensures that sensitive information is protected. If Wi-Fi is unavailable and you use your phone’s data to connect to the internet, you can also use a VPN to ensure the security of data sent over an LTE network.

Does Using a VPN on a Public Network Pose Any Security Risks?

VPNs provide substantial protection when used on a public network, but they are not immune from security breaches. Hackers have been able to exploit weak protocols in some VPN software. Viruses and malware remain a threat, even when using a VPN. Using a consumer-grade VPN on public networks poses risks. They do not provide the same level of protection as enterprise VPN solutions, which require authentication to access company resources and provide additional security features. Some consumer VPNs also don’t provide true encryption, and several consumer VPN providers have been caught logging user data and selling it.

When choosing the most secure VPN solution for your business or personal use, consider these features:

  • Strong encryption algorithms: most VPNs use AES-256 bit encryption
  • Robust support for authentication
  • Support for logging, auditing, and digital certificate
  • Inclusion of a kill switch, which ensures that whenever a VPN connection is lost, either the internet connection is shut down or the apps using the connection stop operating

Protecting Your Data With a VPN

VPNs enhance security and privacy when using public Wi-Fi. VPN subscriptions enable enterprises and individuals to protect their data, hide their IP addresses, and safeguard their servers.  For more information on using VPNs and to receive a free network security assessment, contact us today.

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