How to keep your PC safe on Public Wi-Fi networks

There are a few things you should do to maximize your safety when connected to a public wireless network.  The ubiquity of WiFi, especially with the advent of WiFi, increases both the convenience of working online and the need to protect our digital presence.  Here are three basic things you should do to stay secure when using a public hotspot:

  1. Enable your Firewall
  2. Disable File and Printer Sharing
  3. Use secure web sessions

1. Enable your Firewall

Windows XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 8.1 come with a basic integrated firewall.  Although the firewall won’t protect you from spyware, viruses, Trojans, or phishing scams, it will moderate outbound connections, mitigate worm propagation and generally prevent hackers from gaining access to your computer through the internet.

Since you’re using the internet in a public space you definitely want to make sure the Firewall is enabled.

Visit the Control Panel, go to System and Security and choose Windows Firewall.

Windows 7 Windows Firewall

On my Windows 7 box, I clicked the Windows Firewall text by the red brick graphic with the little globe.  Then when the Windows Firewall with Advanced Security window opened I clicked Windows Firewall Properties in the right pane under the overview and chose On (recommended) from the drop down combo box.

Enable Windows 7 Firewall

2 Disable Sharing

Sharing your files and printers with friends and family in a home network is fine but you need to disable this when connected to a public WiFi hotspot because it exposes your computer to attack.

In Windows 7, click Start and type sharing options and press Enter.

In the change homegroup settings window click the Change advanced sharing settings link near the bottom of the window.

Windows 7 Sharing Options

A window appears displaying various network profiles: Home/Work, Public, and possibly Domain if you’re using the professional version of Windows.  You want to select the Public profile and choose the three options below:

  1. Turn off network discovery
  2. Turn off file and printer sharing
  3. Turn off Public folder sharing

Disabling network discovery prevents other computers on the public network from seeing your computer.  Disabling File and Printer Sharing stops anyone from accessing your photos, music, videos, and documents. Public folders are places to drop files for universal access across the network; if enabled, anyone on the network can retrieve them so it’s a good idea to disable this too.

Windows 7 disable File and Printer Sharing

 

3. Use Secure Web Sessions

SSL, secure sockets layer, is a means of encrypting browser communications over the network.  If a hacker is sitting in the coffee shop with his laptop sniffing the network for passwords you’re traffic show up as an unintelligible mess of random characters.  Whenever you’re signing into a web application like web mail, your bank account, Facebook or Twitter you need to make sure the connection is secured via SSL.

If you use Gmail it encrypts the connection automatically; however, a few days ago, I talked about how to encrypt it even more.

To verify SSL connectivity, make sure an s is in the http: prefix of the address bar.  Also look for a little closed padlock icon.  IE9 and Chrome are shown below.

Gmail SSL

Gmail SSL Chrome

Most sites do this automatically when users attempt to access a secure area; however, if yours doesn’t, try entering the https:// prefix before the domain name to force a SSL connection.  For example, if you wanted to login to example.com but notice the connection isn’t secured then you would enter https://example.com and try to login that way.  It won’t work in every case but it’s worth a shot.

The Bottom Line

When surfing online in public spaces security should be paramount.  And while most of the people in your local Starbucks aren’t sitting in the corner sniffing network packets for passwords it’s still a good idea to take some basic security steps to protect your PC.  Enabling the firewall, disabling file sharing and using a secured web session will decrease the chances of an attacker compromising your system or viewing private data.  Admittingly it won’t deter determined hackers; however, it will make them think twice before choosing your system for their next I-hacked-this-n00b-in-Starbucks blog post.

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Posted in How To, Windows 7, Windows Vista Tagged with: ,