Staying Safe on Public Wi-Fi this Summer

July 17, 2017

Whether you’re refueling on a cross-country trek, or sat on the carpet waiting for storytime to start, chances are you and your kids are near a Wi-Fi HotSpot. Summer means more time away from home and work, and the secure networks we use at each to get online. Public Wi-Fi is a great resource, but always consider the following to connect safely.

When is public Wi-Fi Safe?

There are a number of things we can do to secure our home networks from threats. But when we're on the road for vacation or enjoying summer activities, we rely on outside networks to access the sites and apps we love. How can we stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks?

Simply put, public Wi-Fi HotSpots are not as secure as a password protected network. HotSpots present great opportunities for the public to get online, and this ease of access comes with its own precautions for safe use. In the summer months your kids are likely to have more time on their hands (read: on their devices). A lot of this time will be in public places with open networks such as stores, schools, rec centers, or libraries.

Libraries are a prime example. Most of them offer free Wi-Fi access, making them open but not necessarily secured. If you’re not sure if the network is secure, tell your kid not to log into sites that require an account or personal information for access while connected to that network.

Some places have had success in restricting access to specific content. In the U.K., the government-initiated Friendly Wi-Fi program grants a certificate to Wi-Fi networks that have measures in place to filter out offensive content, such as pornographic images. The content you or your child can view on networks like this is safer, but the same rules apply for open Wi-Fi networks.

How can you tell when a website is safe?

There are common indicators of safe websites, including addresses starting with "https" (look for the "s") and a closed padlock icon that may be green or show up beside the word "secure" depending on your browser. Even with these indicators, don't enter sensitive information when using a public connection.

What can I do to stay safe?

Measures you can take as an individual include making sure your anti-virus software is up to date, not logging into social media accounts or other password protected accounts on public Wi-Fi, and using your network data instead of Wi-Fi when using your phone to browse or as a personal HotSpot for other devices.

When accessing unsecured public Wi-Fi, avoid making purchases. If your child is using a device connected to your credit card or bank account, change your use settings in case hackers access your details through in-app purchases. Apple offers advice for setting up use restrictions for your iTunes account. Google support offers instructions to set up a restricted profile for a user (for example, your child) on your Android tablet.

Don't connect to a network you cannot verify. When you are staying at a hotel or visiting an attraction, ask what the name of their official Wi-Fi network is and stick to that. And again, whenever possible, avoid entering personal information while using a public connection. If this sounds like it’s going to dampen the holiday mood by curbing your posts, check out our advice on how to use the pause to fully enjoy your vacation before sharing it.

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Written by

Rebecca Kielty

Rebecca Kielty is a summer intern with the Family Online Safety Institute. She is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology (CCT) MA program at Georgetown University, with a focus in privacy. Rebecca earned her BA in English Literature from the University of South Florida Saint Petersburg in 2010.