Public Internet connections are convenient but potentially risky if you don’t take a few precautions.
Walk into any coffee shop or hotel lobby and you’ll witness one of the most obvious signs of our times: People of all ages and vocations browsing the web and checking email from their smartphones or laptops. If you get close enough to see what’s on their screens, you might even see some of these road warriors accessing business applications in the cloud, such as a salesperson checking into their customer relationship management (CRM) database or preparing for a meeting in an online collaboration space. But you have to wonder: how secure is that connection?
Before you give your employees the go-ahead to work outside the office, make sure they know how to securely log in to your small business network from Wi-Fi hotspots. Otherwise, any information they transmit could be up for grabs, from their email password to credit card numbers to confidential business data. After all, a public hotspot is essentially a network for unknown and risky computers, and you never know who may be lurking online to capture your critical data.
Working securely in five easy steps
Depending on the hotspot, mobile employees might find an Internet connection with built-in security. They can check this by clicking on or mousing over the connection icons. The network names should include information about the network, including the type of security used. It’s also smart to choose a public network that uses a password, indicating that encryption is in use.
But even if secured, telecommuters should follow these five easy steps for using public Wi-Fi:
1. Use a VPN to connect to your network . Many small businesses already have VPN software installed on their network and on mobile devices. If your company’s not ready for a VPN, you can require employees to install a personal VPN client on their computers, such as the free OpenVPN or HotSpotShield. Personal VPNs create a secure connection between the employee’s device and the provider’s Internet gateway which cannot be listened in on.
2. Use secure websites. Don’t transmit any personal or sensitive data, such as social security numbers or corporate credit card numbers, over any URL that is not secure. Look for websites with URLs that start with “https,” which ensures that the communications between your laptop or smartphone and the website’s server is encrypted. Firefox users can install a plug-in called HTTPS Everywhere that creates secure connections to websites that support HTTPS. This is important anytime you are online but definitely when using WiFi spots.
3. Keep security software up to date. One of the biggest risks of using a public hotspot is being attacked from the unknown computers sharing the unsecured network. Firewall software, along with antivirus, antiphishing, antimalware, and antispyware software, should be regularly updated on all users’ laptops. For instance, Cisco ProtectLink Endpoint continuously updates devices automatically to provide the most current defenses against a range of possible threats.
4. Disable sharing. Users’ Wi-Fi-enabled devices might be set automatically to allow sharing with or connecting to other devices. In a public network that means connecting to unknown and risky devices. The way to turn off sharing depends on the device and its operating system. For example, with Windows XP, you click Control Panel, then Network Connections, and then the Properties tab where you’ll find the check box for “Internet Connection Sharing.”
5. Don’t leave your laptop unattended. No matter how safe you feel in your local coffee shop, never leave your laptop unsupervised and don’t stay logged in to any site you’re not actively using. Likewise, always remember to log off if you’re using a shared computer, such as at a hotel business center.
You can learn more about using Wi-Fi hotspots safely from the global non-profit organization Wi-Fi Alliance.