There are plenty of opportunities to connect to public Wi-Fi hotspots when you're on the go these days. Coffee shops, hotels, restaurants and airports are just some of the places where you can jump online, but often these networks are open and not secure. Whether you're using a laptop, tablet or smartphone, you'll want to connect your device securely to protect your data as much as possible. Here's some simple steps you can take to help make sure your data is safe on open public Wi-Fi.

Computer networking settings

Enable your firewall, especially for public networks. In fact, Windows will enable its firewall settings by default if you tell it to during set up. If you're not sure if it's on, open Control Panel, then Windows Firewall, and make sure you're screen looks like the one below.

Turn off all sharing

To get to the network settings you'll need to change, open Network and Sharing Center from Control Panel. Then click "Change private advanced sharing settings" located in the left pane.

Then under Private, Files and printer sharing, Guest or Public, turn off network discovery. Make sure to click Save changes for them to take effect. Also turn off file and printer sharing.

Note: To turn off sharing in Mac OS X go to Sharing Options > Change Advanced Sharing Settings.

Security browser extensions

One essential browser extension I would recommend is
HTTPS Everywhere from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). This allows you to have a secure connection when you visit common sites like Google, Yahoo, ebay, Amazon, and more. It also allows you to create your own XML config file to add more sites not listed. It's available for both Chrome and Firefox and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Use a VPN to connect to the hotspot

Unfortunately not all sites and search engines offer secure a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encrypted protection. This makes the data flowing through those networks available for the bad guys to see your activity. So you might want to consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots. A VPN provides a secure and private way to connect to open networks.

One of my favorites is ProXPN which is free for the basic version. However, this option limits your speed throughput to 300 kbps, which might not be enough for some users. The premium account will set you back US$6.25 per month and offers full speed and additional features. It works on Windows, Mac, and there's a mobile version for your smartphones or tablet. The process is simple: set up an account, install the software, log in, and you'll be securely connected online.

If the idea of paying for a VPN doesn't appeal to you, give Hotspot Shield a try. It's free but ad supported unless you purchase the elite version which is US$29.95 per year, which is still cheaper than ProXPN. Also, during installation be sure to do a custom install, and uncheck each of the options that will add a toolbar, change your default search engine, and home page. If you can deal with a few ads, your connection to Wi-Fi hotspots will be secure, and that's the main thing. If you're only using it on rare occasions, say at the coffee shop, the ads aren't too annoying. It works on Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android.

Here's an example of a Hotspot shield ad for the free version. It displays on top of the page, so it's not too intrusive.

Keep your software updated

Finally, it's important to ensure your antivirus and malware protection is up-to-date, as well as your operating system. Operating system updates not only keep your system running smoothly, but they also patch security holes. Keep in mind that nothing is 100 percent secure on the internet. But the more layers of security you add, the better protected you'll be.
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