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Staying Safe on Public Wi-Fi, Nothing too Technical, Just Some Simple Things

Public W-Fi at places like restaurants isn't that safe to use because you are prone to attacks. PHOTO: Freepik

Public W-Fi at places like restaurants isn't that safe to use because you are prone to attacks. PHOTO: Freepik

We have made a big fuss about Wi-Fi at the airport, at the event venue, and select hotels. We have held press conferences; we have had high-profile individuals testing the waters — or rather the Wi-Fi!

Granted, a lot of the fuss is about Wi-Fi 6, the latest generation of Wi-Fi technology. It’s designed to be faster, more efficient, and supports the latest security protocols, but I’m not convinced that as a country we should be making so much fuss over something like this. I’d be more enthusiastic if for example it was invented by a Ugandan, or it was new.

But anyway, for today, I will not get into technical details of Wi-Fi, 6 or otherwise, or even the particular installations that have made headlines recently. What caught my attention is the fact that the majority of users are oblivious to the risks and potential threats of using public Wi-Fi.

We often see memes about a power outlet and Wi-Fi being the first things a person looks for wherever they stop, whether it’s at home, a hotel, a restaurant, or visiting friends. Sometimes we are the aforementioned people! Very often they will log on and do everything that they couldn’t do while economizing their mobile internet bundle. But little do they know the risk they are taking!

A chill ran down my spine at the sight of several high-ranking government officials’ heads bowed, engrossed in their smartphones, testing the Wi-Fi at the airport. Most of them probably have no idea what precautions to take to keep safe, just like the average internet user at a hotel or restaurant.

As a self-proclaimed Digital Evangelist on a mission to champion a Digital-First lifestyle, I feel I must address this gap in awareness and share a few simple tips to help keep secure when dealing with public Wi-Fi. Nothing too technical, just some simple things that everyone who owns a smartphone or laptop can make sense of, regardless of technical expertise:

  1. Use a VPN

Thanks to the 2021 events, most of us in Uganda will have at least one VPN app installed on our smartphone or computer. When on public Wi-Fi, this is a really good time to ensure it’s activated!

  1. Confirm you are connecting to the correct network

If you check and there are many networks with similar names, it’s best that you check with the establishment, whether it’s a restaurant or hotel to confirm which one is the right one to avoid falling victim to a fake network set up by cybercriminals.

  1. Avoid accessing sensitive information

While you’re on public Wi-Fi, try as much as possible not to access your online banking or sensitive personal or work data. Save those for when you are on a known, secure network.

  1. Do not connect to less secure networks

Sometimes your device will alert you that the network you’re trying to connect to “uses an older security standard that might not protect you.” How about you believe your computer and stay off that network?

  1. Disable Filesharing and Airdrop

When on public Wi-Fi, with lots of strangers connected, that’s not the time to start sharing files. Keep filesharing and discovery turned off. Fortunately, most devices will have them off when you connect to public Wi-Fi by default.

Bonus point:

Just stay off public Wi-Fi altogether. Turn off Wi-Fi, and check your settings to make sure your device isn’t in the background “scanning for high-quality networks” or finding nearby devices. Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it. Just stay away! Exercise caution and prioritize your device’s security over the allure of free GBs.

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